Linebacker one of 49ers' biggest needs heading toward free agency

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The free-agent market is scheduled to open March 9 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 7. We'll count down to that with a position-by-position look at what the San Francisco 49ers have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

Position: Linebacker

Under contract: NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Eli Harold, Aaron Lynch, Shayne Skov, Carl Bradford, Wynton McManis, Zach Moore

Pending free agents: Gerald Hodges, Michael Wilhoite, Nick Bellore

What’s needed: The 49ers played a season-long game of musical linebackers after injuries struck the unit early and often. Most notably, Bowman suffered a torn Achilles early in the season, leaving the Niners scrambling for help. Armstrong also suffered an early injury and missed most of the season, though he apparently showed enough to earn a contract extension. Hodges, Wilhoite and Bellore were the primary backups who helped pick up the slack, but now all three are eligible to test the market.

It's important to note that linebacker isn't as pressing a need as it once might have been because the Niners are planning to switch to a 4-3 "under" defense similar to Seattle's under new coordinator Robert Saleh. They still need help, especially on the edges, and the Leo position (outside pass rusher) also can be considered a sort of de facto linebacker. The changes to the scheme make it a little more difficult to peg the Niners' approach, but this is a position that could see some substantial investment because it's one of the few that could have legitimate talent available.

As it stands, Bowman is likely to return as the middle linebacker with Armstrong the likely option to play the weakside spot. Brooks would make sense as the strongside linebacker, though the need for someone who can cover and play at the line of scrimmage for that spot could allow the Niners to search for an upgrade. Lynch and Harold project as possible options for the Leo job.

In looking at the market, it wouldn't be a surprise if current teams began using their franchise tags on some of the top names. New England seems determined to keep Dont'a Hightower one way or the other, while San Diego and Arizona could do the same with Melvin Ingram and Chandler Jones respectively. The goal for the Niners should be to find someone who can add some pop to their pass rush but who also is young enough that he will still be able to contribute in a few years when the team is presumably in a better place. If Hightower somehow hits the market, the Niners should at least kick the tires as he would make an ideal strongside linebacker while offering protection behind Bowman in the middle.

Possible fits: Dont'a Hightower (New England), Melvin Ingram (San Diego), Nick Perry (Green Bay), Chandler Jones (Arizona), Jabaal Sheard (New England), Zach Brown (Buffalo).