This offseason has featured a lot of chatter about the 49ers pass rush, and particularly what will happen if Aldon Smith faces any sort of suspension. His guns/DUI case remains up in the air following another continuance of the preliminary hearing, and his potential LAX misdemeanor case is still being figured out by the LA City Attorney. Given all that, it's hard to figure out what exactly will happen with NFL discipline. I suspect we see a plea bargain in the guns/DUI before too long, but we'll see.
If Smith is forced to sit for any period of time, the 49ers will be looking at an outside linebacker corps that features Ahmad Brooks, Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier, and the recent additions of South Florida defensive end/OLB pick Aaron Lynch, and USC defensive end/OLB Morgan Breslin.
The 49ers spent a fifth round pick on Lynch, and he will likely look to make a similar transition as Aldon Smith. All indications are that he'll start with his hand in the ground as a nickel pass rush specialist in his rookie season. In adding Lynch, the 49ers invested a day three pick in a guy with some question marks. He has admitted to making stupid mistakes, and understands that is why he slipped. USF coach Willie Taggart vouched for him to Jim Harbaugh, but his addition is still a roll of the dice for San Francisco. If he works out, that's great, but if not, it only costed them a day three pick.
Breslin signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent, coming off injuries that slowed his college career. He's a talented player, but if the injuries have slowed him down too much, the cost is low for the 49ers.
I think this allows us to infer some things about the 49ers mindset this offseason. They would appear to not be overly concerned about pass rush depth. They added two upside guys in Lynch and Breslin, but I can't imagine they are expecting huge production from them if Aldon misses time. Rather, the team could very well be sufficiently excited about Corey Lemonier as a guy who can fill the pass rush void.
When Aldon Smith went to rehab last year, Skuta and Lemonier rotated in opposite Ahmad Brooks. The combination of Skuta and Lemonier was not enough to fully replace Aldon, but they did good work in his stead. Lemonier in particular was efficient in his pass rush work. Pro Football Focus tweeted out this chart earlier in the week:
Looking for an instant impact from your rookie edge rushers? Here's how some of last year's top picks fared in 2013. pic.twitter.com/KCk9AnpWOf— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 12, 2014
P.R.P stands for "pass rush productivity", and measures pressure created on a per snap basis with weighting toward sacks. Lemonier was tops among rookie pass rushers, which includes 3-4 OLBs and 4-3 defensive ends. Among all 3-4 OLBs, Lemonier was 23rd. It's worth noting that PFF ranked Dan Skuta 11th, Aldon Smith 6th, and Ahmad Brooks 50th.
We saw Lemonier show some things in the preseason, and it was a plus to see him build on that during his regular season opportunities. He'll get plenty of opportunities in the preseason, and if Aldon Smith has to sit for any stretch, it would not surprise me to see Lemonier start to emerge ahead of Dan Skuta opposite Brooks. That's not to say Lynch or Breslin won't get a chance to make an impact, but Lemonier has a huge edge on them. Last August, Vic Fangio even said he felt Lemonier was further along at that point than Aldon Smith had been at the same point. A big part of that was because Aldon was limited by the lockout, and Aldon may very well have more than made up the difference through the rest of his rookie. Nonetheless, Fangio isn't exactly one to hand out a ton of compliments.
The 49ers will head into the season with a continually evolving secondary. The secondary might take a step forward, but they'll need help from the pass rush. Even if Aldon Smith avoids a suspension, the 49ers will need some combination of Lemonier, Skuta, Lynch and Breslin to step up and develop a solid rotation. I think Lemonier is the guy to do it.