San Francisco 49ers: Biggest Under-the-Radar Roster Battle at Training Camp
The camp battles within the roster are usually exciting headliners. Considering the depth, it's easy to focus on battles at the wide receiver and running back position groups. The 49ers are also quite stacked at the cornerback position, which should make for a competitive offseason.
Entering his second year, linebacker Aldon Smith is expected to step in as a starter in place of Parys Haralson. Haralson is a solid linebacker who started for the league's top-ranked defense in 2011, but the 49ers would like to see more statistical productivity out of that position and will get that by promoting Smith.
The 49ers also brought in a few outside linebacker prospects this offseason, all of whom have potential as situational rushers.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame linebacker Darius Fleming tore his ACL in May, but it opened a window for players like Kourtnei Brown. Fleming was a fifth-round pick by the 49ers, and their first defender selected in the this year's draft; there was room for Fleming to potentially have a role in the defense as a rookie.
Brown, a defensive product of Clemson, projects as a developmental pass-rusher, transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker. The 49ers staff had success with this last year when they turned their first-round "project" from Missouri into a sack machine in year one.
The Niners are clearly looking for depth at the outside linebacker position, but prefer to fill it with someone whose skill set prominently features pass-rush ability.
Brown's main competition for a roster spot will be with Virginia's Cam Johnson, who was the 49ers' seventh-rounder in 2012. Johnson, like Brown, was a defensive end in college, but had consistency, and thus, a higher profile. Though taken in the seventh round, Johnson was rumored to potentially go as high as Round 2.
This is an underrated battle because with Aldon Smith taking on the starting role, the 49ers are in the market for a situational rusher that can provide depth in the linebacking corps. Whoever wins this battle could wind up seeing significant reps on third-down situations in an attempt to bring extra heat on the quarterback.
Brown is listed at 6'6", 255 pounds, two inches taller than the lengthy Aldon Smith. He has the physical tools and potential to overcome the disposition of being an undrafted free agent. Brown is big and lengthy, and it's even been said he resembles that of Aldon Smith.
As a high school senior in North Carolina, Brown had a single-season performance of 95 tackles and 33 sacks coming from the weak-side defensive end position. After a remarkable senior season in high school, Brown was a highly sought after recruit, but eventually elected to go to Clemson University.
We have a breakdown of Brown's career as a Tiger, courtesy of Pro Football Weekly:
Saw action in 11 games as a true freshman, recording 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack in 2007.
Posted 21-2-0 [21 tackles, 2 for a loss and 0 sacks] with one pass batted down while playing in all 13 games, including his first career start against The Citadel in ’08.
Redshirted in ’09 because of the depth of the defensive line for the Tigers.
Returned in ’10 to participate in 11 games and registered 17-2-0 and a blocked punt against Presbyterian College. Sprained his left ankle against Boston College and missed the next two contests.
Was limited during ’11 spring practice because of a sprained PCL in his left knee and graduated in August of 2011. Saw limited action as a reserve in ’11, managing 25-4-2 with two batted passes and one interception in 14 games. Scored two defensive touchdowns against North Carolina — a 20-yard interception return and a 26-yard fumble return — to become the first Clemson defender to score twice in a game since 1954.
Brown did not have the smoothest college career, but when he was on the field, he did enough to show flashes of a high ceiling. His lengthy but solid frame gives him massive potential as an outside rusher in the NFL.
Having sustained significant sprains in his last two seasons as a collegian, injuries seem to be a concern. However, injuries in college are not always indicative of what a player's pro career may turn out to be. San Francisco's own running back, Frank Gore, had worse injuries coming out of the University of Miami—he is now the franchise's all-time leading rusher.
Brown possesses 4.7 40 speed and has very fluid lower body motion, which, when playing up front, helps in his pursuit of the ball carrier. The rookie definitely moves well for his size and can make plays as an outside rusher.
In this video, you'll see good awareness and play recognition, along with great athleticism. The Clemson vs. North Carolina game was the biggest of Brown's career and was enough to get him noticed as a senior.
What people like about Brown is that he is a pure athlete, and DE/LB just happens to be the position he plays. When he's been on the field, he's shown great explosion, hand quickness and uses his legs. Brown has the frame to add weight and become stronger, and if he can get his technique down and remain healthy, he could be a playmaker on an NFL defense someday.
The 49ers rookie linebacker will need to show signs of development throughout the training camp. It will be essential for him to learn gap assignments and not over-pursue plays, because often for a rookie UDFA, reps are limited.
Brown is a threat to make the roster because the 49ers know that a young, high-ceiling defender like him might not clear waivers, and they might not want to risk losing him. San Francisco's staff made the same decision last season by retaining undrafted free agents Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams.
If Brown makes the team it's because he made a statement in camp. He could also benefit from preseason reps:
|Preseason Week||Time (PST)||Opponent||
|Friday, August 10||6:00 p.m.||vs. Minnesota||
|Saturday, August 18||5:00 p.m.||at Houston||
|Sunday, August 26||1:00 p.m.||at Denver||
|Thursday, August 30||7:05 p.m.||vs. San Diego||
These will be crucial dates for Brown. While a first rounder like A.J. Jenkins is less concerned about losing a roster spot, Brown will be coming extra hard as a UDFA. That label alone automatically puts him in the majority of players that will be sent home by the end of camp.
Good news for Brown is three of the four offenses the 49ers will see in preseason like to sling the ball. Against Houston, Denver and San Diego, Brown should have plenty of opportunities to rush the passer. He will be a player to watch this preseason, and take note, if he gets a sack or two, it might be enough to stay on board.
Right now, Kourtnei Brown is a diamond in the rough, but he is a player to watch, as he could potentially leapfrog Cam Johnson with a strong offseason.
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