To this point, we've taken a look at halfback, fullback, tight end and inside linebacker. They're important positions, to be sure, but they're all basically in good health as far as the 49ers are concerned. Now though, we're going to get our hands dirty and get into the nitty gritty of the 49ers. We'll take a look at one of the more important positions on the team, especially considering the 3-4 defense that Vic Fangio will be running.
Outside linebacker is a position that has seemed "decent" for the 49ers for awhile now and really hasn't been beyond that since 2002. Why is 2002 significant, you might ask? It's because no 49er has had more than 8.5 sacks in a single season since then. That's bad, no other way to look at it - just flat-out bad.
In fact, all but one outside linebacker on the 49ers roster right now has been "the guy" for the future at one point or another. They have all entered one offseason with considerable hype and fallen flat the next. Having a running back by committee is a strength to keep your guys fresh, but having an outside linebacker by committee almost never works if at least one of them isn't above "average" as a pass rusher. We'll address what to do in the "looking ahead" section later on after the jump, but first, a look back.
|2010 - Manny Lawson||16||2.5||22||1||0||0||44||9||53|
Manny did have a lot of big games this past season with the 49ers, but he did fall short of my expectations for him. This offseason, he had some contract issues and started a mini-holdout of sorts, but it was all settled and when he came in to play, he looked great. Weight was added, and it didn't appear to sacrifice any speed or quickness. He began making big plays here and there. Quarterbacks were made uncomfortable whenever he rushed, though it wasn't often, admittedly.
Early on, he was taken out in favor of some of the other guys in pass rushing situations. Said players were ineffective at doing what they were doing, and Lawson saw more time rushing the passer again. It still only amounted to 2.5 sacks, but he made his name known elsewhere, namely in the passing game. One play in particular was in week six against the Oakland Raiders, when he made a diving interception off of Jason Campbell. It's the kind of play Lawson can make with some measure of regularity, but he was still lacking where the 49ers need him most.
San Francisco can have the best cover linebackers in the league, the best against the run and they would still fail if they can't apply pressure effectively. It's clear after 2010 that Lawson is not a guy who can do that consistently. Still, his coverage is probably the best of any outside linebacker in the league, and his speed is a huge asset for the 49ers defense.
After the jump, we take a look at the other outside linebacker options on the 49ers' roster, 2011 free agents for the position and of course, the 2011 NFL draft ...
|2010 - Parys Haralson||15||4||28||0||0||0||29||13||42|
Haralson had a great year in 2008, and after that - almost nothing. He was just another one of the players who came on strong, got a little bit of money, and appeared geared for something special the following season. But offenses figured him out fast, and his moves were quickly picked apart. Last season, he gave way to the two players below more often than not, and in the time he didn't, his play was spotty at best.
The biggest problem with Parys is his inability to be consistent with playmaking ability. We went weeks at a time without even hearing his name, even at times when he was playing decently. He jut doesn't have "it" despite the fact that he might have appeared to be poised to show whatever "it" was following 2009.
He only had four sacks last season, and some say that's because he was rotated out frequently. I'd counter with the simple fact that if he was consistent with his pressure and sack numbers, he wouldn't need to be rotated in the first place. Haralson is a decent starter in the 3-4, but is in need of a replacement much more than Manny Lawson.
|2010 - Ahmad Brooks||13||5||33||1||32||0||24||2||26|
Brooks did a lot better than he has in recent years, but he's still come up short. He took snaps away from Manny Lawson, and he took snaps away from Parys Haralson. When he was rushing the passer, he looked good doing it, but he would often disappear for long stretches of time. Teams figured him out as well, and he stopped performing as the season went on. He fell short of my expectations.
One good thing that he showed, though, was the ability to cover. Many questioned his ability to drop back into coverage or move sideline to sideline, and he did show that. After taking over Haralson's pass rushing spot, he slowly began to take some coverage snaps from him as well. He even snagged an interception. I identified his best game as against Denver, where he was all over the field.
He came up short in one area, but came on strong in another. The problem is, we need a pass rusher, we've already got a few guys who can cover.
|2010 - Travis LaBoy||13||5||31||0||0||0||21||7||28|
LaBoy was a pleasant surprise this past season, but he's on the opposite side of the spectrum. Whereas he impressed with his pass rushing ability, he is almost laughably bad in coverage and is not great when a player gets to the outside. His five sacks were in limited playing time, but had he played better, he would have been in there more, so they're a good indication of where he's at.
He's probably the best pass rusher right now on the team, and to me that's a red flag. He gets the most pressure from the defensive end position and not the outside linebacker position. All I can really say about LaBoy is that he's been a good signing, but doesn't offer a whole lot for the future at the outside linebacker position.
Manny Lawson is a free agent, and I don't know that he'll be back in San Francisco. The NFL has told teams to go ahead and use their franchise tags, but I don't see it being used on Lawson. He's not that valuable to the 49ers at this point, he's not worth the $10 million or so that he would cost. But as a free agent, they might be able to sign him, though it feels as though he makes enough highlight reel-esque plays for some team to overpay for him.
Travis LaBoy is also a free agent, and I expect the 49ers to offer him something. I don't see his coverage skills improving and thus, I don't see him being much of an impact going forward. Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson will compete as usual, and maybe Vic Fangio can figure out Brooks and get him going. It's a definite possibility and the 49ers are not horrible at the position. Maybe someone else can make these guys reach their potential, and for that reason, they'll get their shot.
Thaddeus Gibson is a guy to look forward to. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the fourth round but was cut due to an abundance of linebackers. If there's a team that understands the position, it's Pittsburgh, so we might have something here. The 49ers consider him a rookie going forward and will be evaluating him, though I don't really know what to expect.
LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers: Woodley has had a down year, and maybe that's enough to pry him away from Pittsburgh. They might be adverse to applying the tag on him and paying $10 million to a guy who had a down year on his contract year, the opposite of what you might expect. Still, a down year for Woodley is three less sacks, ten less tackles and two more interceptions? That doesn't sound too bad.
For a 49ers fan, it sounds great considering his number of sacks even after factoring in that he's had a "down" year is ten. Ten sacks, with three forced fumbles to boot. That's something the 49ers have lacked, and something they seriously need going forward in their 3-4 defense. Woodley won't come cheap, but he'll probably be worth every penny at this point. Probably my most wanted free agent.
Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs: There's really not any scenario that I can see this guy leaving Kansas City. I feel as though he's going to be franchised there, and if not, he'll cost an awful lot of money. Still, the 14.5 sacks would just be ... wonderful, wouldn't it?
Beyond those two, there aren't many 3-4 outside linebacker-types that are worth it in free agency. The better course would be the draft.
Now there are some definite beasts here. In the first round at pick number seven, the 49ers may or may not have two options in Robert Quinn and Von Miller. Miller is a guy we already discussed, and can do just about everything the 49ers need. He's a very disruptive pass rusher, and he's shown the ability to get out and hold the edge, particularly in the Senior Bowl. He'd come in and immediately start.
Quinn has all the athleticism in the world, and providing he's in as good shape as he's supposed to, can make an immediate impact on the 49ers. There's a lot of options though, and some solid guys in rounds 2-4. Sam Acho is a guy I really like, while Justin Houston could be good as well. The link above is Drafttek's 3-4 OLB big board rankings, and you can look up reports on any one of those guys. I would only be happy with the first two in the first round, however.