When the 49ers play the Colts Saturday in an exhibition game, there will be a new starter at the SAM linebacker position, Mark Nzeocha.
Eli Harold, who’d started at that position the past two seasons, is off to Detroit after a trade for a reported seventh-round pick in 2019.
Nzeocha will be backed up by Pita Taumoepenu.
Yet by trading Harold, the 49ers might also be opening up a door for rookie linebacker Fred Warner, who’s been terrific in training camp and exhibition action.
Warner, a third-round pick from BYU, has been playing inside linebacker with the 49ers, but has the background and talent to play on the outside. The 6-foot-3, 236-pounder, played a hybrid linebacker-safety position in college and one of his strengths is pass coverage.
The 49ers could use a platoon that includes Warner, plus one or two others (Nzeocha, Taumoepenu, Dekoda Watson) depending on the situation.
Last week against the Texans, Warner was in on five tackles in about a quarter and a half of play, and recovered a fumble.
The SAM linebacker is on the field for about half of defensive snaps and comes out on passing situations when an extra defensive back is needed. Though the Niners have really liked what Warner has done at inside linebacker, it seems plausible Warner could be used in a variety of roles as a rookie: at SAM, at inside linebacker and in special pass-coverage situations.
Though Harold’s strength was in setting the edge against the run, a combination of Warner and another linebacker might give the 49ers more versatility on the edge.
Certainly, the 49ers love him and want to see him on the field.
Recently, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Warner is doing “very well” and shows “great physicality.”
“He’s progressing very well,” said Saleh. “We’re excited where Fred is.”
The 49ers-Colts game in Indianapolis is set to kick off at 1:30 p.m. PDT.