We all know by now that elite pass rushers don't grow on trees. It's why you'll rarely find one on the open market in free agency. It's also why if a team doesn't find one via the draft, it's unlikely to ever find one.
Take this offseason as a perfect example. Detroit Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah and Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence were two potential free agent targets for the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, both players were hit with the franchise tag. Last year it was the same story with Jason Pierre-Paul and Melvin Ingram. As John Lynch put it, you end up doing a lot of homework on players you'll never truly have a chance at acquiring.
That fact makes it so crucial to develop the existing talent on your own roster. The 49ers posted just 30 sacks last season, but there are still a few intriguing pieces to keep an eye on. Lynch named Eli Harold as a player who has a chance to make a jump in 2018.
Harold was originally taken by the 49ers in the third round (79th overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft. The 49ers projected him as a pass rusher, but after a series of position changes in his first two seasons, Harold found a home at SAM linebacker in 2017. It's an important distinction to note that the SAM linebacker is, first and foremost, a player who needs to stop the run in Robert Saleh's scheme. That's something Harold did exceedingly well last year, becoming one of the better edge setters in the NFL.
San Francisco's defense ranked seventh in yards per carry average (3.8) in 2017, a marked improvement after finishing dead last the season prior. Harold had plenty to do with that success against the run. And yet, Lynch said that he sees an even bigger role ahead for the linebacker in the coming year.
"We think Eli's got some skills," Lynch said. "We felt like he made great progress at the SAM linebacker spot last year, but we do believe he has some (pass) rush ability that is untapped. We need to tap into it. We're going to give him that opportunity."
Lynch went on to compare Harold to Bruce Irvin. The 49ers GM would love to see Harold evolve into a SAM/LEO, a role Irvin filled with the Seattle Seahawks. That would make Harold a three-down player with the responsibility of stuffing the run on early downs and then rushing the quarterback on passing downs.
"If Eli could become that for us, that would be a really good development," Lynch said.
A carousel of coaches and schemes throughout Harold's first three years hindered his development. The linebacker fluctuated between positions and he tailored his body to fit each new role. Harold has now settled between 254 to 257 pounds and hopes to stay there for good.
"You don't need to be big to play in the league," Harold said. "You just need to be strong. You don't see many guys at my position over 260 pounds."
Continuity could go a long ways for Harold. He shared that he's never been in the same scheme for more than a year. Now he'll have the opportunity to grow on his experiences last season with help from a coaching staff that remains almost the exact same as it was in 2017. Harold will also be learning to rush in tandem with largely the same group of pass rushers.
If Harold's confidence ever wavered, it's certainly back now.
"I feel like I got my mojo back mentally. I just can't wait for this year," Harold said. "I know I'm here for a reason. I wouldn't be here if I couldn't do it. So many people believe in me – my family, my friends, my teammates and my coaches. When you've got so many people who are on your side, how can you fail? I'm so motivated internally."
If the linebacker does take on more of a pass-rushing role next season, he's almost a lock to surpass the two sacks he posted last year.
Harold was also keen to note that he's ready to win. It's something he never did at Virginia and hasn't done much of in his three seasons with the 49ers. But the linebacker can feel that things are turning around in San Francisco, a vibe he's never felt before in his career.
"I'm so excited right now," Harold said. "I don't have any words for it. It's an amazing feeling. I feel like we're going to make it pretty far."