When the San Francisco 49ers selected OLB Eli Harold in the third-round (No. 79) of the 2015 NFL Draft, I immediately considered the pick as not only selecting the best player available but a draft day steal.
A player with a huge upside from a pass-rushing standpoint, as Harold finished with 17.5 sacks in two seasons at Virginia, the question remains why those stats have not translated over to the NFL, as Harold has zero sacks through the first 11 games of his rookie season.
Earlier, I wrote an article as to why the 49ers may bolster their pass-rush with Seahawks OLB Bruce Irvin but now I’m reconsidering that strategy, as they may instead roll the dice on Harold.
Harold who openly admitted that he modeled his game after Irvin during pre-draft interviews — appears to be the next man up if the 49ers release OLB Ahmad Brooks‘ at season’s end. So what should the Forever Faithful expect from Harold in the last five games of the 2015 season?
While Brooks continues to deal with concussion like symptoms, expect Harold to finally get his shot to shine, as he proves his worth as a pass-rushing specialist.
When analyzing the game-film from Harold’s first career start against the Arizona Cardinals, he looked extremely fluid coming off the edge. With 6:50 seconds left in the first-quarter you could see a glimpse of Harold’s potential, as he forced LT Jared Veldheer to hold onto him for dear life after he torques his upper-body to get ‘skinny’ while not opening up his body to an easy punch. However, no penalty was called, shocking right?
Then on the same drive with 4:11 seconds left in the first-quarter, Harold fired out of his three point stance while then trimming the edge — saving a potential touchdown as QB Carson Palmer threw the ball earlier than he wanted as WR Larry Fitzgerald was unable to make the acrobatic play in the end zone. While DB Jimmie Ward was the one garnering the praise by the announcers, it should be noted that it was Harold’s rush that made that play possible.
The 2nd quarter is where Harold really stood out for me, as he made a nice run stuff on 3rd and 1 with 9:13 seconds left in the second-quarter. A play that saw Harold set the edge while then bull-rushing the C-gap as Fitzgerald tried to block him, it was Harold who then disengaged from the stack-and-shed to make the play behind the line of scrimmage.
If Harold is playing so well then why is he splitting drives with OLB Corey Lemonier? Your guess is as good as mine, as Harold is clearly the better player of the two in my opinion.
A clear indication of this was in the third-quarter where Lemonier was unable to set the edge on a run play to the outside, as Cardinals RB Andre Ellington had an easy run. It was 6:26 seconds left in the third-quarter and Lemonier failed to maintain gap integrity allowing Ellington to bounce outside.
When watching Harold — not once did he fail to set the edge on a run play while looking more fluid in his backpedal in coverage. I can’t say the same for Lemonier.
Harold didn’t re-enter the game until the fourth-quarter and he again made the most of his limited opportunities. With 13:37 seconds left in the fourth-quarter, Harold again had a mismatch as TE Darren Fells was unable to generate a punch on Harold — allowing him to trim the corner while then getting a quarterback knockdown on Palmer.
So after reviewing Harold’s play up to this point, I have came to the conclusion that he has come along just fine and should be a great complement to OLB Aaron Lynch for the foreseeable future — as these two pass-rush specialists will be a great 1-2 punch moving forward.
And while Harold continues to make the most of his limited opportunities, I believe the time is now to insert him as the full-time starter moving forward, as Harold has the motor, strength, and football IQ to create consistent havoc under DC Eric Mangini’s scheme.