SANTA CLARA – Linebacker Elijah Lee appears set to make his first NFL start, but he does not want to get ahead of himself.
After all, he said, although he is working with the 49ers’ first-team defense in preparation to face the Detroit Lions on Sunday, he is trying to maintain the same business-like approach as knowing he might be called upon at any moment.
“I just know that I have to do my job and prepare,” Lee said. “The coaches say, ‘Be a pro.' So when you’re a pro, you’re always prepared to be the next one up.
“It’s humbling. They put you out there because they trust you, so you got to take that and run with it.”
Reuben Foster is serving the second game of a two-game suspension for violations of the NFL’s policies on substances of abuse and personal conduct. Veteran Malcolm Smith, who missed all of last season with a torn pectoral, has been out of action since sustaining a hamstring injury in the first preseason game. And Brock Coyle, who started alongside Fred Warner in the season opener last week in Minnesota, is out at least eight weeks after sustaining a compression fracture in his back.
“He’s ready to go,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said of Lee. “He’ll be getting some reps and we’ll see how it plays out for Sunday, but we have all the faith in the world in Elijah to go out and perform.”
Lee declared for the 2017 NFL Draft after his junior season at Kansas State with the idea of providing financial support for his mother. He received a middle-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, but was not chosen until the Minnesota Vikings invested a seventh-round pick in him.
He was among the Vikings’ final cuts last year, and the 49ers signed him away from Minnesota’s practice squad. Lee appeared in 14 games, mostly on special teams, as a rookie with the 49ers.
“I’m more of a rangy guy, sideline to sideline,” said Lee, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 229 pounds. “I’m not the biggest guys, but at the same time, I can play inside the box.
“Coming out of college, that was one of my worries, because in the Big 12, you never really have to take on blockers. You’re just running around, sideline to sideline. Now, it doesn’t bother me. I worked on that a lot, being more physical, being able to come downhill and come off blocks. That’s the only way you’re going to make plays in the NFL.”
Similar to their acquisition of Lee last September, the 49ers signed outside linebacker Mark Nzeocha off the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad. Now, both are in significant roles. Nzeocha became the 49ers’ starting outside linebacker with the decision to trade Eli Harold to the Lions.
“They earned their roles to make this team, and now it looks like they’re going to get their opportunities,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on “49ers Game Plan,” which airs Saturday on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3) at 7 p.m.
“We don’t have to hesitate with those guys. They can play. They’re on this team for a reason, and they make me feel very good about our depth, whether they’re backing guys up or coming into a game or playing on special teams.”
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This Sunday, be sure to watch 49ers Pregame Live at noon and 49ers Postgame Live immediately after the game on NBC Sports Bay Area and live streaming on the NBC Sports app. Greg Papa, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Matt Maiocco and Laura Britt will have everything you need to know from the 49ers’ home opener.