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49ers camp preview: Malcolm Smith's return brings linebackers to full strength

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49ers camp preview: Malcolm Smith's return brings linebackers to full strength

The 49ers’ coaching staff was devastated a year ago when starting inside linebacker Malcolm Smith, the team’s biggest free-agent pickup on defense, was lost for the season with a torn pectoral early in training camp.

Smith is back, though he will open training camp on the non-football injury list with a lower-leg injury. The 49ers expect Smith to be back early in camp.

The 49ers were determined to accumulate better depth in the offseason to withstand the two-game suspension Reuben Foster will serve at the beginning of the season.

Who’s Here

Inside -- Reuben Foster, Malcolm Smith, Fred Warner, Brock Coyle, Korey Toomer, Elijah Lee, Mark Nzeocha Outside -- Eli Harold, Dekoda Watson, Pita Taumoepenu

Best Of The Bunch

When Foster was on the field as a rookie, he was a dynamic presence in the middle of the team’s defense. But Foster missed six games due to injuries. He will not play a full season this year, either. Foster will serve a two-game suspension for violations of the league’s policies on substances of abuse and personal conduct after offseason charges of possession of marijuana in Alabama and an assault weapon in California. He will immediately step back into the lineup in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs and will likely lead the team in tackles and big hits.

Top Camp Battle

Warner vs. Toomer vs. Coyle. The 49ers anticipated losing Foster for a period of time this season, and they took measures to strengthen their depth at inside linebacker. Smith appears locked in as the middle linebacker. And in Foster’s absence, there figures to be good competition at the weakside position. One of these three players will be the starter in Week 1 at the Minnesota Vikings. Warner, a third-round draft pick from BYU, excels in coverage – a must for a three-down linebacker in today’s NFL. Toomer, a four-year veteran, started 16 games over the past two seasons with the Chargers. The 49ers also re-signed Coyle, who started 10 games last season at middle linebacker after the club released NaVorro Bowman. Coyle, originally added for his special-teams ability, got better and better throughout the season. He did not participate in the offseason program as he rehabbed from shoulder surgery.

Long Shot

Taumoepenu did not make any kind of impact as a rookie. He appeared in just two games and did not register a tackle or any statistics. Instead, most of his work was behind the scenes as he was devoted to getting stronger and learning the NFL game. The 49ers drafted Taumoepenu in the sixth round last year for his ability to rush the passer. He recorded nine sacks in his final season at Utah. The door is open for a young edge rusher to emerge, and Taumoepenu can work his way up the depth chart to become a factor in the 49ers’ nickel defense.

Overview

Harold returns as the starting “Sam” linebacker. The 49ers’ coaching staff likes Harold, and they would like to give him a chance to emerge as an every-down player. The team believes Harold can contribute as a pass-rusher, too. Foster will regain his starting role upon his return to action in Week 3. If Warner wins the job to open the season, he will try to make a case for remaining in the lineup – or, at least, earning a specialized role in the team’s nickel package.

Why Bobby Wagner is wrong Seahawks, not 49ers, are NFC West team to beat

Why Bobby Wagner is wrong Seahawks, not 49ers, are NFC West team to beat

The 49ers are reigning champions of their conference and division. They held a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. Though the Kansas City Chiefs ultimately came back to win, that was only San Francisco's fourth loss of the season, including the playoffs. In those four defeats, the 49ers lost by a combined total of only 24 points -- nearly half of which resulted from the Super Bowl.

So, naturally, San Francisco would be the team to beat -- if not in the NFC, surely in the NFC West -- next season, right?

Not according to Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.

During an appearance on ESPN's "First Take" on Wednesday, Wagner expressed significant confidence in his team, and made the case that the Seahawks should be the favorites in the NFC West.

"I feel really confident," Wagner said. "Obviously, Russell [Wilson] is an amazing quarterback; the things that he does on the field are just amazing. Like you said, he's one of the greatest quarterbacks in our game. We're confident on that side. I feel like from the defensive standpoint, there's a lot of room for improvement. We have to play a little bit better. I feel like if we make those changes and make those improvements, I still feel like we'll be the team to beat."

Still? Hmmm ...

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He's absolutely right about Wilson. The guy is a magician in the pocket -- and that's where you hope to contain him. Wilson has been a thorn in San Francisco's side ever since he entered the NFL, and there's arguably no more terrifying opposing QB to 49er fans. With Wilson having two deep targets in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, as well as a strong running game, there's ample reason for Wagner to be confident about Seattle's offense.

The defense, on the other hand? Well, he's correct that there's room for improvement. Plenty of it.

Last season, the Seahawks ranked 26th overall in total defense, and tied for the second-fewest sacks in the NFL. That was with standout defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney in tow, but all signs point toward him signing elsewhere this offseason in free agency. They re-signed defensive tackle Jarran Reed, traded for cornerback Quentin Dunbar and signed pass-rushers Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin, but other than that, Seattle hasn't really addressed the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Granted, the 2020 NFL Draft is right around the corner, but there's no guarantee they'll find any immediate contributors there.

Wagner is phenomenal, and fellow linebacker K.J. Wright is very solid, as well. But they both lived up to those reputations last season, and look how that worked out. Yes, the 49ers won the division by a matter of inches in Week 17, but Seattle also required overtime to beat a shorthanded San Francisco squad in Week 10, which was without star tight end George Kittle.

Though the 49ers have retained most of their own free agents, they did see wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders sign with the New Orleans Saints, and made the tough decision to trade defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts. Of course, San Francisco didn't lose Buckner for nothing -- like Seattle might with Clowney. The 49ers got the No. 13 overall pick in the upcoming draft in exchange, which should help them replace Buckner or Sanders, or address another position.

[RELATED: Oklahoma WR Lamb could be 49ers' Sanders replacement]

The Seahawks currently have five picks in the first four rounds of the 2020 draft, but they gave up a third-rounder to acquire Clowney last offseason, and their earliest selection doesn't come until No. 27 overall.

In addition to the No. 13 overall pick, the 49ers also possess No. 31.

Any team with Wilson behind center should feel confident. But last I checked, he doesn't play defense, and that, among other reasons, is why the 49ers -- and not the Seahawks -- are the team to beat in the NFC West.

NFL Draft 2020: 49ers could target these three wide receivers on Day 3

NFL Draft 2020: 49ers could target these three wide receivers on Day 3

The 49ers have selected a wide receiver in 17 consecutive drafts.

That streak is certain to continue later this month, as the 49ers will look to bring in a young player to help offset the loss of veteran Emmanuel Sanders in free agency to the New Orleans Saints.

The past two years the 49ers drafted two receivers both years.

Whether the 49ers invest an early pick in a wide receiver or not, they could double back on Day 3 of the draft in hopes of finding a player to develop into an impact player.

Here are three options who could be available in the fourth round or later:

Isaiah Hodgins, Oregon State

Isaiah Hodgins (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) declared for the NFL draft after a junior season in which he caught 86 passes for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns for Oregon State.

Hodgins has what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan seems to value – the ability to run routes with an ability to change direction quickly without losing speed. Hodgins is 5 inches taller than Deebo Samuel, yet Hodgins timed faster in the three-cone drill than Samuel. Hodgins ran the drill in 7.01 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Last year, Samuel ran a 7.03. Hodgins’ 20-yard shuttle was 4.12. Samuel’s was 4.14.

Hodgins is not a speed-burner with a time of 4.61 seconds in the 40-yard dash, but he could be an effective receiver on the outside to make grabs with his strong catch radius and keep the chains moving with his ability to take patterns over the middle of the field on third downs.

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Aaron Parker, Rhode Island

Aaron Packer’s teammate, Isaiah Coulter, ran much better in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. But Parker seems as if he would be a good fit for the 49ers due to his route-running, change-of-direction skills and toughness as a blocker in the running game.

Parker (6-2, 209) has a basketball background and posted one of the top three-cone times (6.94) at the combine. Shanahan will see a wide receiver who can get open quickly against man coverage on choice routes. Parker was a team captain who caught 81 passes for 1,224 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior. Coulter caught 72 passes for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns.

Parker could be available deep into Day 3 in a loaded group of wide receivers.

RELATED: Do 49ers need to give Jimmy Garoppolo No. 1 wideout?]

Quez Watkins, Southern Mississippi

If the 49ers are looking for a player to take the top off the defense while playing a limited number of snaps throughout the course of a game, Quez Watkins is a solid late-round option.

Watkins (6-foot, 185) is a player who can bring the speed in great abundance. His time of 4.35 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine ranked second behind only Alabama’s Henry Ruggs.

With Marquise Goodwin’s status with the 49ers this season looking tenuous, the 49ers could select Watkins on Day 3 and have him perform a specialized set of plays. Watkins capped his college career with 64 catches for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns.