SANTA CLARA — Last week, a German television crew paid a visit to San Francisco 49ers training camp. Their subject: Mark Nzeocha. The former Wyoming linebacker was born in Ansbach, West Germany, and this offseason, during his yearly trip back to see his parents and two brothers in Frankfurt, he appeared on German television.
“I met those guys before, and they had me in their studio,” Nzeocha said. “When I went home this past offseason, football’s grown in Germany, for sure. To have me in the studio, and on social media, you definitely get it.”
The fifth of six German-born players in NFL history — and just the second German national — didn’t know early Thursday afternoon if he’d even make San Francisco’s 53-man roster this season, much less if he’d be starting Saturday against the Colts. Moments earlier, head coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed that, after San Francisco dealt SAM linebacker Eli Harold to the Detroit Lions on Thursday morning, Nzeocha would get the start.
“If I’m starting, I’ll be ready,” Nzeocha said. Asked if he sees it as an endorsement for his spot on the 53-man roster, he said, “Honestly, I don’t see it that way. Eli was a great teammate. Learned a lot from him. Honestly, I’m sad to see him go, and I wish him all the best. If that means I’m up now, and my number’s called, I’ll be ready to go.”
Harold, originally selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, appeared in all 48 games (25 starts) in three seasons with the team (2015-17), with 109 tackles, five sacks, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. He started 11 games for San Francisco in 2017 and finished with 34 tackles and two sacks.
“It was a tough decision, love Eli,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “It’s been great to get to know him over the last year. But as this week went, just looking into closer to how our final 53 is going to work out, I won’t say it was just about Eli, it has to do a lot with how we think we’re going to use people on game day, who’s going to be up between defensive linemen, outside linebackers, inside linebackers.”
The 49ers, Shanahan said, have numbers crunches at certain spots, and moving Harold helped solve some of those issues.
“It has to do with how much you’re on the field in base personnel to nickel personnel to special teams to who’s the backup to the D-Linemen and to the SAMs and the inside linebackers,” Shanahan said. “All of those guys are interchangeable in how you use them. It’s pretty complicated.”
With San Francisco dealing Harold to the Lions for an undisclosed draft choice, the race for starting SAM linebacker in Robert Saleh’s defense looks to be down to Nzeocha and Pita Taumoepenu. Fred Warner — who worked with the inside backers on Thursday — could also be a candidate.
“Nzeocha has been having a good camp, but [the trade] is about a lot of things,” Shanahan said. “The main stuff was looking ahead on how our 53 is going to be and how our game day roster is going to be and kind of the decisions that go into that that people don’t realize and players don’t realize either.”
Nzeocha and Taumoepenu were the only two players warming up as the SAM backer on Thursday, as the 49ers held their final practice before heading out to Indianapolis to play the Colts in their third preseason game. Dekoda Watson — who could have slotted in as the starting SAM, and had been playing the LEO position — warmed up with the defensive line.
Taumoepenu, a sixth-round pick out of Utah, played in two games last season and didn’t record any statistics.
“You’ve got Pita and Nzeocha listed at SAM, we had [DL Cassius] Marsh has played SAM, we had Dekoda listed at SAM last year,” Shanahan said. “We have I think six inside linebackers on our roster who can play SAM So, there’s so many different ways we can go here in the next 10 days.”
Nzeocha — a 6-foot-3, 240-pounder with 17 NFL games in three years — played in 10 games for San Francisco last season, with two tackles and one assist as an inside linebacker. He was told before camp that he would be converted to the SAM, and he wouldn’t even have to gain any weight to set the edge. Harold tipped the scales at nearly 270.
“Every NFL team in the league that calls themselves a 4-3, they set the edge with 4-3 linebackers that weigh the same or they do it with strong safeties,” Shanahan said. “You can do it with a hardball corner which is very different, but that’s an option. Some people can do it with nine-techniques. So, there’s lots of different ways to set an edge.”
The only real difference was the mindset, being down on the line more and rushing the passer more often against tight ends and offensive linemen.
“You’ve got to be disciplined with your eyes, you’re still dropping back in pass coverage and man coverage at times, so you’re still a linebacker,” said Nzeocha, who was a safety at Wyoming. “You still do it all, you play run and pass. Overall, it’s a little bit different than inside ‘backer, but you still do a lot of those similar things.”
There wasn’t much of a learning curve. He was able to learn the position after a couple days.
“Set the edge, and then go get the ball,” Nzeocha said. “I’m still a linebacker, still have to make plays, but you can’t be as aggressive. You honestly have to be assignment sound and just do your job.”
— Cornerback Richard Sherman looked to be triggering well in individual drills at the start of practice. Shanahan said he would start on Saturday against the Colts, and play as much as he needs to, and left open the possibility that he could play next week in the preseason finale against the Los Angeles Chargers, as well.
“We’re playing him with the starters and we’d like the starters to play the first half,” Shanahan said. “Like I said earlier in the week, that could be less. It could be a little bit more. But, I’d like to keep Richard on the same plan. He hasn’t been out as much as everyone, so we’ll see how it goes. We’ll monitor his reps.”
Shanahan said he’s “leaning a lot on Sherm” to determine how many reps he will need.
“He’s finally got to the point where we feel he can go and not have setbacks,” Shanahan said. “Now it’s what he needs to do to get himself ready for Minnesota. I know a lot of that has to do with getting him some playing time this week. Based off how this goes and how practice goes next week, I’ll talk to him and see how much he thinks he needs versus Los Angeles.”
— Defensive lineman Arik Armstead (hamstring), defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (concussion) and linebacker Malcolm Smith (hamstring) will all be back in action on Saturday. Cornerback K’Waun Williams (ankle) is still questionable, while offensive lineman Gary Gilliam is still in concussion protocol. Williams suffered his injury on August 6, and the slot corner/free safety has been sidelined ever since.
Armstead said he’d play as much as the staff needs him to play against the Colts.