Outside Linebackers: Long look back, brief look forward

Earlier in the week we took a look at the 49ers wide receivers in 2008 and what that meant for 2009.  Today we'll take a look at the 49ers outside linebackers.  I originally planned on combining all the linebackers together, but in the 3-4 I feel it's more beneficial to consider the OLBs separately.

As with our wide receivers (and actually most of the positions), this felt like a tale of two seasons: The Nolan half and the Singletary half.  The Nolan half involved a convoluted system of switching back and forth between the 3-4 and 4-3, virtually on a whim.  Had that system continued, we probably would have to review Justin Smith's performance both as a defensive end AND as an outside linebacker.  This was the system that led to Manny Lawson actually playing one game entirely on special teams. 

Once Coach Singletary took, that all changed as the defense became a straight 3-4 squad.  This change resulted in significantly more playing time for Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson.  The problem created by Nolan's initial decisions was reducing the body of work we have to look at in regards to the OLBs, with Haralson and Lawson being the two primary examples.

Parys Haralson: Haralson finished the season with more sacks than any 49er since Bryant Young also had 8 in 2005.  While he has made contributions in other areas, his primary ability rests in his pass-rushing skills.  This was his third season with the team and there had always been talk of "potential" with Haralson.  After a virtually non-existent rookie season, he 2.5 sacks in 2007 before busting out this season. 

Haralson is shorter and stouter than Manny Lawson and there has been some question about his speed.  It seems like he figured something out this year, although part of that probably had to do with coming in behind a guy like Justin Smith sometimes.  Since this is only one year of big production one might argue it could very well be a flash in the pan.  While that is certainly possible, I also think it says something a bout Haralson that given the clear lack of a pass rush elsewhere, he was still able to make things happen and get his numbers.

Manny Lawson: After missing almost all of 2007, Lawson's 2008 campaign could probably best be described as inconsistent.  He had some big performances, and then would disappear the next week.  This is probably primarily due to his continued recovery from knee surgery and so somewhat expected.  Throw in Mike Nolan's sometimes bizarre use of him and it was hard for him to get going at times.

Lawson is not a pass rushing OLB in the traditional sense.  He certainly can use his athleticism to get to the QB, but his real talent lies in run stopping and dropping back in coverage, along the lines of Julian Peterson.  Singletary has done a better job of utilizing Lawson and I think next season could be big for Lawson considering it usually takes a full season before a player is completely recovered from knee surgery.

Roderick Green: Green is a pass rushing specialist and while he certainly made some big sacks for the 49ers, he was not as consistent a threat as I would have liked.  I'd imagine part of the reason he ended up in San Francisco was because of his connection to Nolan in Baltimore.  Green is an unrestricted free agent and I'd be pretty surprised if the 49ers brought him back.  I think you know what you're getting with Green and resources would be better spent on bringing in someone new, whether it be through the draft or free agency.

Tully Banta-Cain: TBC has more or less become an outside linebacker in name only.  He spends a majority of his time on special teams, although he seems to do a fairly solid job in his role.  Depending on which resource you consider, TBC is scheduled to hit the cap for around $3.5 million, including a base salary of $2,475,000 (the NFLPA reports a base salary of $1,275,000).  Since he's a free agent following next season, I'd imagine the 49ers might just keep him around, even if it's mostly as a special teams player.  We'll see how Singletary/McCloughan handles it.

One area considered a big need for the 49ers is in the pass rush department.  The general idea is that the 49ers need defensive or outside linebacker help in the form of a big-time pass rusher.  In looking at the 49ers depth chart, I really wonder if that need has to be filled at outside linebacker.  We know what Parys Haralson did when he got playing time this season.  And while Manny Lawson isn't a traditional pass rusher, he brings plenty of skills to the OLB position.

One interesting point is that Parys Haralson is entering the final season of his rookie contract.  In early 2008 the 49ers approached his agent about working on an extension but it did not go much further than that.  I'd say that was well-played by Haralson given his 2008 production.  If he has another impressive year without getting a new deal, he could very well be gone.  If you're the 49ers, do you start looking for a replacement now?  Free agency doesn't provide a lot of linebacker options, so that leaves the draft.  If the team can't work out a deal with Haralson before the draft, maybe it's worth spending a high pick on the position.  Thoughts?

I've got a list of potential 3-4 outside linebackers after the jump.  The one problem is that many college players that become NFL OLBs are currently listed as defensive ends.  So this is probably not the most complete list (that and it's only 8 guys right now).

And as for the poll, consider it in terms of the entire season.  If you think the 49ers will bring in a free agent or a high draft pick to work in to become a starter, clarify your vote in the comments.

EDITOR'S NOTE 10:55PM: If you vote note, feel free to let us know what you think will actually happen at the OLB position in 2009.

I took this list from Draft Tek's positional rankings.  Normally I'd use ESPN, but their list of outside linebackers does not differentiate between 3-4 and 4-3 so it's not 100% useful yet.

1. Brian Orakpo, Texas
2. Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech
3. Everette Brown, Florida State
4. Clint Sintim, Virginia
5. Clay Matthews, USC
6. Cody Brown, Connecticut
7. Orion Martin, Virginia Tech
8. Tim Jamison, Michigan

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