Most would agree that the 49ers top three needs are: QB, CB, pass rusher - maybe not necessarily in that order. Since the team utilizes the 3-4 defense, it stands to reason that an outside linebacker (OLB) is the logical choice to find a pass rusher. The 3-4 defensive linemen are primarily there to eat up blocks and keep the linebackers "clean" or, that is, to keep anyone from blocking and tying up the linebackers. This frees the LB's up to blitz and get to the quarterback as well as make tackles in the run game.
In nickel defense the team goes to a four-man defensive line, generally with two defensive tackles and two OLB's who in essence become defensive ends with their hand in the dirt. A few guys like Travis LaBoy and Ahmad Brooks are often used in nickel because their pass rush skills are stronger than their coverage and run-support skills. It's an easy way to get a OLB on the field who might not yet be a complete player.
The problem is that really none of our OLB's have crazy-good pass rushing skills either. LaBoy was arguably the most productive based on the snaps he played and his sack totals. Brooks was poised to build on a late-2009 surge that saw him collect several sacks in just a few games...but that didn't translate into 2010 much. We just really don't have any "beastly" pass rushers on the team who regularly create problems for the quarterback.
That has to change. Granted some of these guys can probably improve under what is now believed to be a competent coaching staff, but some are also free agents and could possibly end up elsewhere in 2011. The team needs to get a serious pass rusher to take our defense to the elite status. After the jump, I'll explain further.
Manny Lawson might walk in free agency, whenever that happens this off-season based on the CBA squabble. Sure he's probably the most complete OLB we have on the team, mostly due to his skills in coverage and against the run inside and out. I hope we're able to retain him for 1st and 2nd downs, although his pass rush skills have not shown up in the stats.
We have three other guys on the squad who are each OK at certain aspects of their game, and great at none of them. The theme here to me is that we haven't taken the position of OLB seriously enough for the past few years and as a result we have some mediocre players who excel at nothing and are taking up space. We need more than one OLB infused into the defense going forward, I think.
First of all though I think it starts with a pass rusher. These guys with their skills in the run game and in coverage have helped some but the record doesn't reflect it much. Great, we can stop the run but we can't get to the quarterback other than in oddly-timed bunches late in the season, mostly. It's time to take it more seriously.
I say we spend a first, second, or third round pick on the best, most relentless, beastly pass rusher we can get who can play on third downs, to start off. I want a guy who is unblockable for the most part. Someone teams talk about when the quarterback is interviewed about upcoming opponents. Someone they have to game plan for. It starts there.
Any OLB worth his salt can make tackles in the run game. Good coaches can make them better in coverage unless they're physically limited, in which case they're defensive ends and should be shipped out. I say it starts with pass rush, and so should we in our search for an OLB this off-season.