It’s extremely unlikely the San Francisco 49ers devote much, if any, major offseason resources toward linebacker acquisitions.
New defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans was elevated from inside linebackers coach following Robert Saleh’s departure.
Ryans’ former unit also happens to be next in the series “Cheap Free Agents the 49ers Should Sign.”
First-team All-Pro Fred Warner and second-year standout Dre Greenlaw form an elite duo, and 2019 undrafted free agent Azeez Al-Shaair was solid in three linebacker sets.
Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, a college safety, and Marcell Harris, the backup strong safety, looked serviceable in brief action at linebacker as well.
Reserves Joe Walker and Mark Nzeocha were mostly utilized on special teams, combining for 368 snaps, but could be on the move this offseason. Walker is a free agent and Nzeocha’s release would free up $1.6 million on the cap.
Again, linebacker is not high on the offseason needs list.
But after a season in which seemingly every position was marred by injuries, it would be wise for San Francisco to utilize the back end of free agency for insurance.
When looking at the free agent market, the 49ers should target inexpensive linebackers that can play on special teams and bring Al-Shaair competition.
Yet McMillan still carries potential and is cheap ($1.1 million in 2020).
The Ohio State product is athletic (4.61 40-time) and has a history of production (204 tackles, nine TFLs and three forced fumbles in 45 games with Miami and Las Vegas). He just needs to put things together in a more favorable system.
Outside of McMillan, there aren’t many inexpensive pieces that would offer more than Al-Shaair and Flannigan-Fowles.
If they do look elsewhere, some other special teams-centered linebackers include Nick Dzubnar, Bryce Hager, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Duke Riley, Julian Stanford and Nick Vigil.
Out of that bunch, Riley (24 career starts) and Vigil (39 career starts) hold the most starting experience while Dzubnar is the best special teamer.
Riley ($825K in 2020 with Philadelphia) played parts of three seasons with Atlanta, and Vigil ($1.9 million) played last year with the Chargers. The Falcons and Chargers ran similar schemes to the 49ers. Either player would help on special teams and could start if Al-Shaair struggles.
Dzubnar ($910K in 2020) has been an excellent special teamer for the Chargers and most recently Tennessee. He has 1,596 career snaps on special teams across six seasons, and just one missed tackle on 33 attempts since 2018.
The 49ers could also just keep Walker and/or Nzeocha. Walker would make the most sense due to his smaller price ($825K in 2020).
In addition to already playing under Ryans this season, Walker’s linebacker coach with Arizona was Bill Davis. Davis was San Francisco’s defensive coordinator from 2005-06, but more notably was Ryans’ defensive coordinator for three years in Philadelphia.
However the 49ers round out their depth behind their young linebackers, they should go for established special teamers, or high-upside, one-year deals.
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