When the 49ers selected Virginia outside linebacker Eli Harold in the third round of the NFL draft this spring, a pair of former NFL scouts now working as media analysts praised the team.
Harold was a fast, athletic pass rusher for the Cavaliers whom some considered a first-round talent, though at 247 pounds over a 6-foot-3 frame he was considered a bit light. In 2014, he had seven sacks. To add him to the roster as a third-rounder was considered a coup for the Niners.
Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com tweeted, “Great value for SF.” Matt Williamson of ESPN.com wrote, “Wasn’t a huge Harold fan, but this late? Great pickup. #49ers have nice edge presence…this D isn’t going away.”
While Williamson’s assessment of the 49ers’ defensive prowess is easily disputed at this point in a 4-10 season, Harold’s upside still seems apparent.
Though the rookie got limited playing time in the base defense early this season – spending most of his time on special teams -- injuries have opened opportunities for him in recent weeks, and Harold finally is getting the chance to show what he might be able to do on a regular basis.
With Aaron Lynch out with a concussion this past Sunday for the second straight game, Harold made his first start at outside linebacker in the loss to Cincinnati. He played 31 snaps, had a tackle for loss, three tackles overall and had a hit on Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron.
He now appears to have surpassed Corey Lemonier at outside linebacker, and may be in line for a greater role in 2016.
“Eli had a couple of really good plays there,” head coach Jim Tomsula told the media Monday. “He had some really good effort plays chasing the ball down. He had some really nice plays with the collision on the tight end and crushing the edge in the run game. I really like where he’s heading. That’s another one of our young guys that we’re really excited about.”
Though the offseason is sure to bring mass change on the roster – and perhaps even in the coaching staff – Harold could be in line for a starting spot in 2016 opposite Lynch.
“He’s a little small right now and not as strong as we want him to be, but he works at it,” Tomsula told a writer for the team’s website. “When he strikes you, he strikes you with everything he’s got. So we figure (if) we pack on a little bit more muscle and a little bit more weight, he’s going to be striking with everything that he puts on.”
The 49ers and Harold get their next opportunity this Sunday against the Lions (10 a.m. kickoff).