This item is part of a series on the positions the 49ers will look to fill in the upcoming draft and the players that are the best fits at those spots. Today’s position:
WILL or weak-side linebacker
Description: This spot lines up on the side of the field away from the tight end and is aligned with the opponent’s guard, usually left guard. Because he doesn’t have to deal with as many blockers as the strong side or middle linebacker, the WILL can be a smaller player. But he must be fast and be able to chase down ball carriers all over the field. He also must be good in coverage over the short middle of the field.
Who’s there now: The 49ers signed former Seahawks and Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith to a five-year contract to play the WILL position. Smith checks two boxes for San Francisco: He’s familiar with the defense Robert Saleh will run this year and he’s fast. Smith ran his 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds at his USC pro day in 2011. The 49ers also extended Ray-Ray Armstrong’s contract by two years in December at a time when Trent Baalke was still the general manager and Jim O’Neil, a big fan of Armstrong, was the defensive coordinator. Both men were fired less than a month later, making Armstrong’s extension seem a bit strange. He presumably is the top backup at the WILL spot but probably is not stout enough to play strong-side linebacker. Another free-agent pickup, Dekoda Watson, provides more depth.
Need level: 4.7
Perfect fit: Temple’s Haason Reddick did a little of everything for the Owls, including playing along the defensive line. At 237 pounds, his best position may be WILL linebacker, and he showed he has the straight-line speed — 4.52-second 40 — needed for the role. A team like the 49ers could have him play WILL initially with the thought that he could move to middle linebacker, which has more responsibilities, when he has more seasoning. In that way other top-rated linebackers like Alabama’s Reuben Foster and Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham also might be good initial fits. Others: Duke Riley, LSU; Blair Brown, Ohio; Tanner Vallejo, Boise State; Jason Brown, UCLA.