The San Francisco 49ers have generally had pretty consistent play out of many positions over the last few years, but the pass rush has always been an issue. For the first time in a long time, I feel the 49ers had an up-to-par pass rush in 2012-12, and we can largely thank the outside linebackers for that.
San Francisco rarely blitzes with extra guys, and though I don't have the full numbers in front of me, I believe they're one of the least-blitzing teams in the league. That's due to a strong group of outside linebackers in Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.
Going forward, they'll need to take a significant look at the backups, but for now, they're in good shape. Let's take a look at the guys and how they did this past season and also take a look forward.
|2012 - Aldon Smith||16||19.5||144.5||1||6||0||49||16||65|
Smith was in the running for the defensive player of the year award for most of the season, and he came very, very close to breaking the all-time single-season sack record. I refuse to call it Michael Strahan's record since he cheated to get the record, so we'll just cal it the single-season sack record.
He was just great this year rushing the passer. He got close to quarterbacks more often than naught and was very disruptive in the backfield. On top of that, he actually dropped back occasionally and didn't appear to be a liability in coverage.
That said, the 49ers were a better team when he rushed the passer. Unfortunately, Smith dropped in production when Justin Smith became injured. The odd thing is that led a lot of people (idiots) to claim that Smith wasn't a good pass rusher and that he was nothing without Smith.
I'd argue that there isn't a single player in the league who doesn't benefit from the players next to him. And it's not like Smith was rushing the passer unopposed. He still was brutalizing offensive tackles en route to the plays he made. In other words, the 49ers are in a great position with Smith, provided he can continue to stay out of trouble off the field.
|2012 - Ahmad Brooks||16||6.5||49.5||1||50||0||35||12||47|
I have to say, I'm continually impressed with Brooks. I remember when the 49ers brought him in, there was a bit of excitement about his potential and then nothing for a season or two. We basically forgot he existed. But now he's become one integral part of the best group of linebackers in the NFL today.
Brooks is a pass rusher, more than anything. That said, we did see him drop back into coverage more and more this season. It's a bit overlooked, but I think Brooks has developed into a really good covearge lnebacker, provided he's not that guy 100 percent of the time.
As such, I think he was somewhat ineffective as a pass rusher at times. He didn't consistently get pressure this year, but he did manage to get seven sacks and he did look good getting them. One big flaw about his style is that he gets called for a lot of offsides penalties. A lot of them. Seriously.
Anyway, Brooks was one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL last season, and he's very much a complete player. Extending him was a very smart move by the 49ers.
When the 49ers were making the switch to Brooks, I was initially resisting the change. Losing Manny Lawson made this defense lose a lot of speed and coverage ability, and I didn't want Haralson to go and lose even more of that. I think it's really understated how consistently solid a player Haralson has been in his career.
But Brooks has been very good, and Smith is an every down linebacker now, so Haralson was the odd man out. Even if he wasn't, though, he didn't see the field in 2012, due to a torn triceps muscle suffered in the preseason. He was placed on injured reserve and sat out the season. His spot next year is tenuous.
Haggans was brought in after Haralson went down with an injury and he played in a few games for the 49ers. He also got suspended and generally kept himself in the headlines in a negative way. That said, the 49ers utilized Brooks and Smith on more than 90 percent of their defensive snaps, so Haggans didn't have an opportunity to do much at all, as it happens.
Smith and Brooks are the guys going forward and there's no doubt about that. However, the 49ers need at least four outside linebackers and the position remains a question mark. Haralson is probably good enough to start in the NFL, but his salary is less than $3 million for 2013 and isn't prohibitive by any means.
That said, Haralson's salary is not guaranteed and the 49ers would save all of it if they elected to release him. Haggans could be back but that's really just a crapshoot. Personally, I'd keep Haralson on the roster unless the 49ers really needed his salary to extend someone like Michael Crabtree.
Then there's Cam Johnson and Darius Fleming. Both players were late-round selections and both players are probably going to battle it out for the No. 4 OLB spot behind Haralson or another free agent signing. Fleming was injured throughout the season though the 49ers did seem to like him more than Johnson. It will be interesting to see where that goes.
I'd look to a veteran free agent as opposed to another rookie, unless someone falls out of the top two rounds into the third, where the 49ers can afford to make such a pick.