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2019 Senior Bowl: 49ers should keep an eye on these inside linebackers

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2019 Senior Bowl: 49ers should keep an eye on these inside linebackers

Coming off a disappointing 4-12 season, the 49ers need to address many positions in the upcoming NFL draft. One that might not be at the top of the list, but is still a priority, is inside linebacker. 

While rookie Fred Warner developed into a very solid addition as the MIKE backer, the team still needs to address the WILL spot that was previously played by Reuben Foster. The team had a few players on rotation in 2018 but still needs to look for a solid replacement. 

Malcolm Smith is under contract until 2021 but spent his first season on injured reserve with a torn pectoral. He was only healthy enough to play in 12 games in 2018, as he dealt with a nagging Achilles injury. 

The inside linebacker class of 2019 is not particularly strong, but there are players that could develop into contributors. There is not one an elite standout, but rather players that would need to carve out a place on a rotational basis and on special teams. Most have a lot to prove at the Senior Bowl. 

Here are the inside linebackers for both squads who are intriguing draft prospects.

SOUTH TEAM

Deshaun Davis, Auburn, 5-11, 246
While he is a little smaller in stature, Davis is known for having high football IQ. He registered 112 tackles in his senior year at Auburn, 57 were solo, 15 were for a loss. He also registered 3.5 sacks. Davis is not the best in coverage but does tackle with aggression. He could have late-round value. 
Projected: Rounds 4-6.

Bobby Okereke, Stanford, 6-3, 234
Okereke has some size to him and is known as a good run defender. He has good lateral speed that could be a nice compliment next to Warner. While he needs to work on his ability to finish tackles, he does have decent coverage skills as a result of his athleticism. 

Okereke registered 94 tackles in his final year in Palo Alto, 52 were solo and 7.5 were for a loss. He also managed 3.5 sacks, five pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. 
Projected: Rounds 4-6.

[RELATED: Wide receiver prospects to watch at the Senior Bowl]

NORTH TEAM

Te’Von Coney, Notre Dame, 6-1, 240
Coney has good size to him and uses it well as a solid tackler. He registered 123 tackles in his final season at Notre Dame, including 9.5 for a loss. He snagged one interception and broke up four passes. 

Coney is stronger in the run game than in coverage but has decent range. He is explosive when hitting and running downhill. 
Projected: Rounds 2-4.

Germaine Pratt, North Carolina State, 6-3, 240 
Previously a safety, Pratt has decent coverage skills and range. He is a solid tackler and could be the most interesting of the group. He registered 104 tackles, 54 of which were solo and 10 for loss. He also had six sacks, three pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.

Pratt would provide later round value but as with most of the inside backers attending the Senior Bowl, they lack the coverage skills and ability to change directions that would make them elite. 
Projected: Rounds 4-6.

This stat shows 49ers star George Kittle's receiving, blocking mastery

This stat shows 49ers star George Kittle's receiving, blocking mastery

George Kittle is a one-of-a-kind tight end, and one stat from football analytics site Pro Football Focus is the latest indication why.

The 49ers star has been, in PFF's estimation, one of just two tight ends since 2018 to rank among the best at his position in receiving and run-blocking.

Kittle's 2,430 receiving yards over the last two seasons are second-best at his position behind Kansas City Chiefs counterpart Travis Kelce, and the Iowa product's per-game average of 81 yards actually topped Kelce. The 26-year-old also set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,377) in 2018, even as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was sidelined for all but four games with a torn ACL. 

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

But the 49ers recognize Kittle is much more than a playmaker, equally valuing his contributions to the team's dominant running game.

“I mean, he had more yards in the pass game as a tight end in the history of the NFL last year,” coach Kyle Shanahan said in January (H/T Jennifer Lee Chan). “So, any time you have a guy like that who's one of the best players on your team who's always just talking about running the ball and playing the physicality in the game and giving everything you can, it helps you hold everyone else a lot more accountable, and rarely do you have to."

While Kittle's skills make him a complete tight end, he reportedly doesn't want to be paid like one. NFL Media's Mike Silver said Friday on "NFL Total Access" that Kittle's agent, Jack Bechta, "[doesn't] care about the tight-end market" in contract-extension negotiations with the 49ers and thinks his client's new deal should reflect Kittle's unique, all-purpose value. 

"I'm being paid to do a George Kittle deal," Silver recalled Bechta saying.

The 49ers and Kittle aren't "close at all" on a new deal as a result, according to Silver.

[RELATED: 49ers' Jimmy G absorbs Montana's wisdom about winning]

There's still plenty of time for the 49ers and Kittle to reach an agreement, as he's entering the final year of his rookie deal. The 49ers, of course, can also use the franchise tag on him heading into the 2021 season.

If the two sides are going to reach a long-term deal, it sure seems like Kittle wants his receiving and blocking contributions reflected in it.

49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo absorbs Joe Montana's wisdom about winning

49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo absorbs Joe Montana's wisdom about winning

Throughout NFL history, of quarterbacks to start at least 100 career games, only Tom Brady (.773) and Roger Staubach (.746) have posted better regular-season winning percentages than 49ers legend Joe Montana (.713). So, when it comes to knowing the secrets to victory, he's a pretty good source of advice.

Montana won 117 of his 164 career regular-season starts, precisely 100 victories of which came with San Francisco. On Wednesday, he posted a photo on Instagram from the final one of those wins with the 49ers, in which he offered up a secret to his success.

"Winners, I am convinced, imagine their dreams first," Montana wrote. "They want it with all their heart and expect it to come true. There is, I believe, no other way to live."
As of the time of this writing, that post had received 15,685 likes, one of which came from another 49ers quarterback who happens to have a knack for winning as well -- Jimmy Garoppolo.

[RELATED: Where Jimmy G, Carr rank among NFL starting quarterbacks]

Jimmy G, of course, displayed his penchant for winning immediately upon joining the 49ers, winning his first five starts after San Francisco acquired him midway through the 2017 season. Across 24 regular-season starts with the 49ers, he has posted a 19-5 record (.792). Not to mention, he arguably was one missed completion away from winning Super Bowl LIV.

Garoppolo might have his own secrets to his success, but it certainly can't hurt if he picks up a thing or two from Joe Cool.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]