When 49ers general manager Trent Baalke drafted Virginia’s Eli Harold this spring, he praised Harold as someone who “tirelessly works at his craft.”
Suddenly, that work ethic is going to be more important than ever.
Originally, it was believed Harold – a defensive end in college who now will play outside linebacker -- would be a bit player in 2015.
As a rookie, he’d spell Aldon Smith at right outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme. He’d also compete against holdover Corey Lemonier for snaps in training camp and exhibition games.
But now that Smith is gone – released after another off-the-field incident – Harold has a chance to be a big contributor to the 49ers defense.
The Niners need pass rushers and playmakers in Smith’s absence, and Harold has the talent and athletic ability to get to the quarterback.
The 6-foot-3, 247-pounder, who led his team with 14½ tackles for loss in 2014, was projected by some as a first- or second-round talent. The 49ers, however, picked up Harold in the third round, prompting the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock to say he believed Harold is a perfect fit with new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s scheme.
Harold told reporters Sunday that he was “initially shocked” when he heard the news about Smith. He said he’d been learning much from watching him and picking his mind.
Now Mangini says no one player can replace Smith, but Harold has potential to pick up much of the slack.
“Eli’s shown some real promise here early,” Mangini told the media after Sunday’s practice. “He’s got a tremendous motor and he’s intensely competitive. He’s one of those guys that you want to tell them to hurry, but don’t rush, because he’s so quick off the ball and so quick to read and react.”
Head coach Jim Tomsula, too, has talked about loving Harold’s energy and ability. Though he’s learning on the job and making his share of mistakes, Tomsula is certain Harold will progress quickly.
“I think everybody sees what we saw in him and why we drafted him,” said Tomsula. “He’s one really athletic, competitive individual.”