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Despite multiple additions, linebacker still a focus for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The 2017 NFL draft is set to begin on April 27 in Philadelphia. The San Francisco 49ers own 10 picks in this year's draft, including No. 2 overall.

With a new regime in coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch in place, it's hard to know what direction the Niners will go with their picks. But the 49ers have plenty of needs as they go about reconstructing their roster.

Here's a look at what the 49ers need at linebacker:

In place: NaVorro Bowman, Malcolm Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Brock Coyle, Dekoda Watson, Jayson DiManche, Zach Moore, Carl Bradford, Shayne Skov, Wynton McManis.

Potential fits:

Weakside linebacker -- Temple's Haason Reddick, Alabama's Reuben Foster, Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham, Ohio's Blair Brown, LSU's Duke Riley, UCLA's Jayon Brown.

Middle linebacker -- Foster, Cunningham, Florida's Jarrad Davis, Ohio State's Raekwon McMillan, Northwestern's Anthony Walker, LSU's Kendell Beckwith, Lindenwood's Connor Harris.

Strongside linebacker -- Wisconsin's T.J. Watt, Kansas State's Jordan Willis, Houston's Tyus Bowser, UCLA's Takkarist McKinley, Alabama's Tim Williams, Alabama's Ryan Anderson.

What’s needed: Just like all of our other defensive positional previews, it's first important to note that what the Niners are looking for at linebacker has changed in new coordinator Robert Saleh's scheme. The middle linebacker will continue to be a focal point of the defense, relaying calls and making sure everyone is lined up correctly. The weak side linebacker's primary responsibility is to run and chase ball carriers and provide coverage in short and intermediate areas in the middle of the field. Finally, the strongside linebacker serves as a sort of de facto fifth defensive lineman, often lining up outside the left defensive end and asked to rush the passer, be strong against the run and have the athleticism to cover tight ends.

The Niners spent a decent chunk of money this offseason to bolster and alter the makeup of their linebacking corps as part of this transition. They signed Smith with the idea of plugging him in on the weak side and giving Bowman a veteran complement. Bowman is expected to hold things down in the middle linebacker spot assuming he recovers as expected from an Achilles injury. At strongside, the Niners have a couple of in-house options in Brooks and Harold with Brooks currently penciled into the job.

On the surface, the trio of Smith, Bowman and Brooks is solid and could certainly hold down the job and potentially play well for 2017. But this is a position where the Niners would be wise to be forward-thinking. Brooks is 33 and will be a free agent after the season. Harold has two years remaining on his rookie deal but has yet to play up to his draft status. Bowman, meanwhile, is coming off a third serious injury and will be 29 in May. Smith is familiar with the scheme and can handle the weak side position with Armstrong serving as a solid backup. Watson, Coyle and DiManche signed as free agents and can provide some depth as well as special teams acumen.

In the grand scheme, a young, talented linebacker capable of playing in the middle, the strongside or both would be a boon to the defense and inject some energy. The Seattle defense the Niners' scheme is based on has excelled in part because of the dominant linebacker play of guys like Bobby Wagner (middle) and the now-Oakland Raiders' Bruce Irvin, who is considered the ideal stronside linebacker for the scheme.

Verdict: Foster is clearly a top 10 level prospect and it wouldn't be outrageous for the Niners to take a long look at him with the second pick. They hosted Foster for their very first pre-draft visit and have expressed interest in him throughout the process. This is a team that has thrived on having a foundational player at middle linebacker in recent years with players like Bowman and Patrick Willis serving as the heart and soul of the defense. Foster has drawn comparisons to Bowman and the Niners could undoubtedly find a way to get both of them on the field if they chose to pursue Foster with the second pick or in a trade down scenario.

But this draft isn't light on talent beyond Foster, either. Guys like Cunningham, McMillan, Davis, Watt, Willis and Anderson would all be intriguing options on the second day. McKinley and Bowser also profile as potential pass rushing defensive ends, which could be appealing in terms of giving the Niners options.

Again, this is a defense that could use upgrades just about everywhere though a case could be made that linebacker isn't as high on that list as other spots. Still, the Niners need more pass rushing punch and if they can't find a "LEO" who fits the mold, perhaps a strongside linebacker can help in that regard. One way or the other, expect the 49ers to leave this draft with at least one new addition at linebacker and don't be surprised if it comes relatively early in the draft.