Look for the 49ers to replace Derek Smith with, well, the next Derek Smith. In 1997, Smith was a little-known linebacker at Arizona State. He didn’t get invited to the combine that year. He wasn’t even in Mel Kiper’s list of Top 100 linebackers. Everyone scratched their heads when the Redskins drafted him in the third round. Still, he was impressive in the team’s minicamp that spring and the coaches quickly made him a rookie starter at outside linebacker. He’s never been anything but a starter in the 10 seasons since.
The Ted linebacker position that Smith played for the 49ers last season is important. That player has to be physical, taking on fullbacks and other blockers to allow Patrick Willis a clean path to the ball carrier. But the 49ers don’t believe they need an all-world type of player at the position. They need the next Derek Smith – smart, physical but not flashy. That’s why it seems less and less likely that they will throw a ton of money on soon-to-be free agent Lance Briggs or spend their first-round selection on an inside linebacker. (Unless Dan Connor somehow falls that far).
Who will replace Smith? There are two candidates already on the squad:
Brandon Moore. How Moore went from defensive mvp one season to low-impact situational player the next is one of the great mysteries on 2007. (Along with the incredible disappearing Jonas Jennings) Moore began the offseason as the starting Ted linebacker. But he wasn’t as physical and consistent as the coaches wanted. When it became clear that Willis deserved to start, the 49ers moved the rookie into Smith’s “Mike” position and shifted Smith to “Ted.” Moore seems perfect for the Ted position – he’s big, strong and -- last preseason aside -- has shown he’s a good tackler. He needs to convince the coaching staff, however, that he has the mentality to handle the grunt work the position demands.
Jeff Ulbrich. Ulbrich substituted quite a bit for Smith last year when the situation called for a more fleet-footed linebacker. Ulbrich was very effective next to Willis against teams that primarily passed the ball, and he likely will be used in a similar fashion during the 2008 season. There is no question that Ulbrich has the right disposition to play Ted. There might not be a tougher guy on the 49ers’ roster. But Ulbrich is small for the position and the 49ers worry that at age 31 he’d have a hard time withstanding the rigors of a 16-game season.
If the 49ers tried to find a potential starter in the draft, here are some of the players who might be available in the third round or lower:
Philip Wheeler, Ga. Tech – He didn’t jump out at the Senior Bowl, but he has good size and speed and played the inside well for the Yellow jackets.
Tavares Gooden, Miami – He was hurt at the Senior Bowl, but scouts love his production at Miami. Could be a good value pick, like Ray McDonald was last year.
Beau Bell, UNLV – He was the biggest linebacker at the Senior Bowl. It’ll be interesting to see how fast he runs at the combine this week.
Jonathan Goff, Vanderbilt – The great Lutzky (A Vandy grad) raves about this guy. He was very productive in the SEC.
Jordan Dizon, Colorado – Described to me at the Senior Bowl as “a poor man’s Jeff Ulbrich.” Could replace Ulbrich as Willis’ back-up at Mike, thus allowing Ulbrich to play Ted.
We must be getting closer to draft time when the mocks start breaking into the third round. Who do the "experts" have the 49ers taking? David Fucillo fills you in here.
-- Matt Barrows