49ers' fill-in linebacker Elijah Lee winning praise

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SANTA CLARA — Player A and Player B both are linebackers.

Player A was a first-round pick in 2017. Player B was a seventh-round pick the same year.

Player A started six games for the 49ers in 2018 before they cut him. Player B has started four games as Player A’s replacement.

Player A averaged 4.8 tackles per game this season. Player B has averaged 9.25 tackles per game during his four starts.

When Player A was the starter this season, the 49ers defense gave up 30.8 points per game and their record was 0-6.

Since Player B has been the starter, the defense has given up 19.5 points per game and the 49ers’ record is 3-1.

When the 49ers drafted Player A, general manager John Lynch called him a “game-changing player.”

When asked to describe Player B last week, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh called him, “steady.”

Player A is Reuben Foster. Player B is Elijah Lee. This is about Player B.

Lee, drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, is not a game-changing player or a great linebacker. He considers himself “decent.” Almost no one would consider him more talented than Foster. But the 49ers play decidedly better with Lee.

For all of Foster’s talent, he was unreliable and undisciplined. He missed lots of tackles, blew lots of pass-coverage assignments and frequently knocked himself out of games using poor tackling technique.

Lee doesn’t do those things. He does his job. No more, no less.

“He consistently is in the right spots,” LA Rams head coach Sean McVay said on a conference call this week. “He’s just a Steady Eddy.”

A reporter tracked down Lee in the 49ers’ locker room and repeated what McVay called him.

“I’m not sure how to take that,” Lee said, “but I’ll take it as a complement.”

To Lee, there are two types of players: ones who are steady, and ones who are not. “I don’t want to be THAT guy,” Lee said, referring to the second type of player.

“I went through that in Minnesota, being a rookie. When it came down to cuts, people said, ‘He doesn’t know the defense, it’s hard for him, he can’t do this, he can’t do that.’ I don’t want anybody to say that ever again. I will never be THAT guy who they say doesn’t know what he’s doing. I want to be the guy who they say knows where to be. Now, I just have to take the extra step and make those big-time plays.”

Lee played college football at Kansas State and the Minnesota Vikings selected him in the seventh round of the 2017 draft. But he didn’t make their final roster. He made their practice squad.

The 49ers signed Lee off the Vikings’ practice squad two weeks into his rookie season, and he mostly played special teams for them in 2017. In Week 2 of this season, he made his first career start while Foster was suspended for violating the NFL’s policies on conduct and substance abuse. Lee recorded a whopping 12 tackles during that game.

Foster returned to the 49ers in Week 3 and Lee returned to the bench. But on Nov. 26, police arrested Foster in Tampa for allegedly hitting his girlfriend. The 49ers released Foster the next day.

Veteran Malcolm Smith initially replaced Foster in the starting lineup, until Smith injured his Achilles tendon Week 13 against the Seattle Seahawks.

Since then, Lee has started the past three weeks at weak-side linebacker, and the 49ers’ defense has allowed just 17 points per game during that time.

“They always say, ‘Work on your craft,’” Lee said, “So, that’s all I’ve been doing.”

Saleh approves. “There are three characteristics that you ask out of a player,” he explained. “Is he smart? Is he tough? Is he reliable? If you’ve got those three characteristics, then you can play good, functional football. Your athleticism, instincts, speed — that’s what pushes you into the next tier of athletes, the best of the best.

“Elijah is a very good football player, but it starts because he’s tough, smart and reliable. He does his job. He knows exactly what he’s supposed to do. He communicates. He keeps everybody at ease.

“The biggest thing he needs to improve is when he makes a tackle, he’s got to get people going backward. Linebackers are defined at the point of impact by whether or not your guy is going backward or forward. As a linebacker, you always make them go backward, because those two, three yards of leaky yardage is a big difference.”

Lee agrees with Saleh’s criticism. “I wouldn’t say I’ve played really good, because I don’t know what my best ball is yet. I’m hard on myself. This offseason, I’m going to get stronger.”

And if he returns stronger next season, he may be more than just a Steady Eddy.

“It’s not a knock saying he’s a steadying force or a Steady Eddy,” Saleh said. “It’s a great complement from a coach’s standpoint, because you’re relied on. And if a coach can rely on you, then you always have a place.”

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