The roles promise to be reversed - kind of - for Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich later this week. Three months ago, NFL general managers passed on Herzlich during the draft. When free agency finally opens up, Herzlich and his fellow undrafted rookies will have more power as far as where they end up. Herzlich, who figures to be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, says the 49ers currently are on his short list.
By now you're probably familiar with Herzlich's story. He was the ACC defensive player of the year in 2008 but missed what would have been his senior season in 2009 when he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Herzlich beat the disease and heroically started 12 of 13 games last season.
But he was still very much recovering from his ordeal in 2010 and wasn't the same player he was in 2008. There's reason to believe that Herzlich is a significantly better prospect now than he was at the close of the college football season or even at the time of the draft. That's because he's become stronger the farther away he gets from the heavy-duty treatment he received. I write about that dynamic in a story slated to run in Tuesday's Bee.
As for the 49ers, Herzlich says they've "definitely been in discussion." The process of choosing where he ends up, of course, depends on which teams call him when free agency opens. From there, he and his agent will find the best fit. "You look at a lot of teams and say, 'Ok, these guys might need an outside linebacker. It might be a good fit,'" he said. "But then free agency could come about and then they sign a few veteran outside linebackers and all of sudden it's not a good fit anymore."
The 49ers drafted Aldon Smith with the seventh overall pick with the intent on starting him at outside linebacker. Early on, however, Smith's role could be as a nickel pass rusher, and he may even begin as a down lineman, something he did at Missouri. Herzlich and Smith are represented by the same agency.
One of last year's outside linebacker starters, Manny Lawson, figures to leave via free agency and another significant contributor in 2010, Travis LaBoy, also is a free agent. The other outside linebackers on the squad are four-year starter Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks and Thaddeus Gibson.
At least one of Herzlich's acquaintances has been talking him up to the 49ers. Herzlich has been training at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. under strength coach Jeff Dillman. Dillman said he's chatted with 49ers linebackers coach Jim Leavitt, who formerly coached nearby at the University of South Florida, about Herzlich's mammoth work ethic.
"Jim Leavitt's a friend of mine," Dillman said. "I told him (Herzlich's) a monster. The guy's a monster. No one is going to outwork him."
-- Matt Barrows