Roster breakdown: LBs

SFI breaks down the 49ers final 53-man roster by unit this week as the team closes in on Sunday's season opener against Atlanta: Today: Linebackers

Starters: Julian Peterson, Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich

Backups: Jamie Winborn, Brandon Moore, Richard Seigler, Saleem Rasheed

What's new: Seigler, the team's fourth-round draft pick, has joined - and strengthened - what already was an outstanding linebacker unit. Those primo linebackers ought to see even more playing time this year with the 49ers planning to use more 3-4 defensive sets.

What's to like: Take your pick. Peterson is an All-Pro and one of the greatest defensive performers in the NFL today. He's a sideline-to-sideline player and can make an impact rushing the passer, in coverage and defending the run. His versatility and strengths give the Niners a dynamic playmaker not possessed by many other defenses in the league. Winborn, too, is an exciting playmaker who can blitz, wallop ball carriers and defend well against the pass. Smith set a franchise record for tackles in a season last year and he also has the athleticism to make plays as more than just a run plugger. Ulbrich's contributions shouldn't be overlooked because he, too, is rugged against the run and can move well in space. Seigler, Moore and Rasheed are all quality players in their own right who each offer something different to a unit that is, 1 through 7, one of the best in the NFL.

What's to wonder about: It may be deep into September before Peterson truly is back to top form after his 28-day summer holdout. Injuries are always a concern with Winborn, and the defense sagged in each of the past two years after he was lost for the season. Rasheed also has had trouble avoiding injuries. The linebackers weren't particularly impressive during the preseason, but if this unit is healthy and playing together, the main thing to wonder about is how everybody else on the 49ers defense is playing around them.

Key preseason stat: Seigler led the 49ers with 23 preseason tackles, four more than any other player on the team and 13 more than any starting linebacker.

The bottom line: The Niners will need to get a lot from their linebackers this season to reach their potential as a top-level defense. This unit appears ready to deliver on that demand. Smith, Peterson, Ulbrich and Winborn have formed the core of this unit for three years now, and they have experience working together and complementing each other. This could be, collectively, their best season yet.

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