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Outside Linebackers: Long look back, brief look forward

Fooch's Note: We'll have an open thread up at 11:45am for Kurt Warner's noon press conference to discuss his future (link to live stream included).

I was trying to decide which positional unit we should look at next, when the Joey Porter FanPost discussion got me thinking about it.  The 49ers outside linebackers did not have one guy who was putting up ridiculous sack totals, but rather had the three-man crew of Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson quietly take care of business, combining for 17 sacks.  Throw in a strong performance by Justin Smith, among others, and the 49ers had one of their strongest years in some time, finishing tied for third in the league in sacks.

Which is why I bring up the Porter FanPost.  People were discussing an assortment of OLB combinations, including a starting duo of Ahmad Brooks and Porter.  Porter had a very solid year, finishing with 9 sacks.  It was down from his 17.5 last year, but still better than any 49ers OLB.  He's extremely talented, although obviously getting up there in age.  The 49ers didn't have a single "dynamic" pass rusher, although Ahmad Brooks showed signs of maybe turning into that player.  The question is whether you stick with a status quo that was quite solid, or shake things up and head into the unknown.

Ahmad Brooks

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Ahmad Brooks 11 6 33 0 0 0 15 1 16

I wanted to start with Ahmad Brooks because of how far he's come, and what the future holds.  Brooks just completed his fourth year in the NFL, known prior to this season as a player long on talent, but short on production.  He spent 2006 and 2007 in Cincinnati netting a sack each season and not a whole lot more.  After the Bengals waived Brooks, the 49ers took a chance on him in 2008.  After a season more or less on the sidelines in 2008, Brooks finally got a chance to really show what kind of talent he had in 2009.  After a stop and start beginning to the season, he moved into the starting line-up at one point and blew up at the end of the season.  He finished with six sacks in 2009, five of which came in Weeks 13, 14 and 16.  Throw in a franchise record tying 4 forced fumbles in those three games, and you're talking about a big time impact player.

Brooks now sits as a likely restricted free agent.  If/when the 49ers tender Brooks, they can then match any offer made to him, or just sign him to the one year tender.  Given Brooks' finish to the season, I wouldn't be surprised if someone tried to throw big bucks at him.  If you're the 49ers, I'd imagine you match any offer.  Of course, in the back of everyone's head has to be the question of whether he can do this for more than just a few weeks in a season.  Can he turn this production into consistent performance over the course of a potential 4+ year contract?  If he can do that the team will be in excellent shape.  It's a big if at this point.  Coach Singletary seems to have taken Brooks under his wing, so maybe that's all it took to get Brooks to realize his potential.  If the 49ers end up inking him to a multi-year deal, let's hope that's the case.

Manny Lawson

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Manny Lawson 16 6.5 37 0 0 0 49 17 66

After a bumpy start to his NFL career, Manny Lawson finished with the best season of his four year career, with 68 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles.  One could argue he finished with those numbers in a fairly quiet manner.  He's always been an athletic player, but it often felt like I'd check the box score at the end of the game and wonder where some of these numbers were coming from.  There were of course also times when you knew exactly what was going on, but nonetheless, it was just kind of surprising to see that he ended up leading the team in sacks by season's end.

Lawson has filled the Julian Peterson role since coming to the 49ers as a sort of jack-of-all-trades.  One complaint prior to this season was his lack of a serious role in the pass rush.  The switch from Mike Nolan and his "big sub" to Mike Singletary and his more basic defense seemed to be the answer.  While Nolan was in charge, we actually had a game where Lawson only played on special teams, or on the occasional third down.  It was really bizarre.  This season, Lawson moved around, getting benched at one point, which seemed to be the kick in the butt he needed.  It will be interesting to see how the team handles Lawson, and Haralson as described below, if they were to bring in another pass rushing OLB.  Personally I say stick with these three in 2010 and see if they can bring some consistency.  The 49ers may have their long-term answer right in front of them.

Parys Haralson

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Parys Haralson 16 5 41 0 0 0 32 11 43

Haralson entered 2009 coming off a very solid 8 sack performance in 2008.  The 49ers seemed to have young pass rush presence they could build around.  2009 didn't end up being a bad performance, so much as quieter, as he finished with 5 sacks.  Part of that had to do with double-teams of course, but he did seem to not continue moving forward after what seemed to be a breakout performance in '08.  The team will be able to give Haralson some time to figure things out as last offseason they signed him to a 5-extension through 2013 with a very reasonable contract.  I'm rather curious to see how, or even if, he bounces back in 2010.

Manny Lawson on the other hand is signed through the end of this coming 2010 season.  What do people see the 49ers doing in this situation?  Manny obviously brings more than just his pass-rushing skills to the table.  He is very solid in coverage and run support, both areas Haralson could use some work in.

Diyral Briggs

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Diyral Briggs 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Briggs was signed as a rookie free agent out of Bowling Green last offseason and made quite the impact in camp.  When he was cut folks were disappointed, but Briggs ended up on the practice squad.  In late October, Briggs was promoted to the 53-man roster, where he finished with a pair of tackles.  Part of the reason some folks liked him was Takeo Spikes crowing about him on the sideline during a preseason game.

It will be interesting to see what kind of role Briggs has in training camp.  When we start up our roster bubble watch and positional battle posts later this summer, he'll probably be featured fairly prominently.  The 49ers offseason maneuvering (Brooks' contract, the draft, and free agency) could give us a good idea how confident the team is in the potential development of Briggs.

Looking Forward

Free Agency
I didn't go with Football's Future this time because they only compiled a list of all linebackers (not so helpful).  Instead I've linked to for their list of free agents, which is in alphabetical order.  The biggest name, Elvis Dumervil and his 17 sacks, is also restricted, so I'd be stunned if he ended up anywhere but Denver.  In a rather humorous bit of timing, former 49er Tully Banta-Cain and his 10 sacks in 2009 are back on the market.  And of course, as was discussed in the FanPost, Joey Porter wants out of South Florida.

2010 NFL Draft
One problem in assessing potential 3-4 outside linebackers in the draft is that a lot of players that were defensive ends in college will be converted to the OLB position at the next level.  Much of the time, it's due to the fact they're just not big enough to survive as defensive ends in the NFL.  DraftTek has put together a ranking of 3-4 Outside Linebackers.  Enjoy.

Overall Rank 3-4 Outside Linebackers School
Sergio Kindle Texas
Jerry Hughes TCU
O'Brien Schofield Wisconsin
Cameron Sheffield Troy
Danny Batten South Dakota State
Dexter Davis Arizona State
Arthur Moats James Madison
Chris McCoy Middle Tennessee
Tim Knicky Stephen F. Austin
Junior Galette Temple