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49ers Training Camp Position Battles: The Linebackers

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The 49ers linebacking corp has been one of their strengths over the course of the last few seasons. A lot of this has to do with Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes lining up in the middle of that four man group. There has been issue on the outside in terms of pass rush, but the addition of Aldon Smith may soon rectify that.

There are battles currently being waged in terms of the 49er linebacking corp. Some of these battles are to make the roster and some are to find a starter at the outside positions.

This morning I am going to focus on these battles.

Outside Linebackers

Aldon Smith: I think it is safe to say that he will be starting at the right outside linebacker position. You don't draft a player #7 overall to sit on the bench. Smith has impressed 49er coaches with his technique and ability to get to the pass rusher during training camp. This is something that San Francisco desperately needs at this point. They don't have a lot of other options in terms of linebackers being able to get 10+ sacks. I personally believe that Smith will be a candidate for defensive rookie of the year right up there with Von Miller and Patrick Peterson; this is how good he is.

Obviously, only playing a couple seasons of college football is going to have an impact on how polished Smith is. He still struggles with dropping back into coverage and recognizing offensive formations. Those are things that can be fixed with the right coaching and experience. Smith will be asked to do a few different things on defense as a rookie. First,is getting to the quarterback and providing that pass rush San Francisco has been missing. Secondly, he will line up in different positions depending on offensive formations and game specific situations. You will see the rookie line up as an end up front in certain passing situations. He has the quickness and strength to be able to beet tackles off the edge. I am looking forward to a big year from him

Ahmad Brooks: Since signing with San Francisco in 2009, Brooks has been their most consistent pass rusher gaining 11 sacks during that span. However, he only has 52 tackles during that span meaning that Brooks has been utilized as a pure pass rushing specialist. In order for him to see the field more Brooks needs to pickup his game in other aspects. He hasn't been asked to drop back in coverage a lot, but when asked to it hasn't been that pretty.

He is still only 27 years old and has a lot of talent. I expect San Francisco to work with Brooks a lot in order to get him into the situation where he can be more of an every down backer. As it is, Fangio's new scheme will benefit Brooks a great deal and I could easily see him picking up a few more sacks and having a career season.

Parys Haralson: After jumping onto the scene with 8 sacks in 2008, Haralson barely matched that total over the last two seasons. He has dropped out of favor in regards to 49er fans and for good reason. We don't see a consistent pass rush from him and there doesn't seem to be much drive in Haralson to get to that next level. What he have right now in Haralson is a player that is good for between 4-6 sacks a season, and only utilized in certain circumstances.

There is a possibility that he will regain old form under the tutiledge of Vic Fangio, who loves to blitz his backer and move the front seven around a great deal. This type of scheme seems to fit Haralson extremely well because of his athleticism. If he tops out at 6 sacks in 2011, that will not be bad considering he would be the first OLB off the bench.

Antwan Applewhite: Surprisingly, Applewhite started 14 games for the San Diego Chargers that season and did a pretty darn good job. He recorded 48 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Not bad for a "project" player in only his second season in the NFL.

A few day ago Fooch posted a San Diego Chargers bloggers' perspective on Applewhite.

John Gennaro at Bolts from the Blue had the following to say about the former Chargers backer.

Really good guy, and known for his versatility (good special teamer, can play ILB in a pinch), but lacking in terms of talent. Last year in the preseason his pass-rushing skills seem to blossom out of nowhere, but they dropped off again once we made it to the season and he was pushed into the starter's role.

It is that versatility that is going to allow Applewhite to make the team. San Diego gave Applewhite a second round tender prior to the lockout but dropped it following a DUI arrest. He has a nice amount of upside and is still only 25 years old. The fact that Applewhite is a good special teamer and can play inside is another positive for his chances to make the roster. I look forward to seeing what he can do during the preseason.

Thaddeus Gibson: A 4th round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2010 draft, Gibson didn't make it out of camp. It is surprising that a player selected that high in the draft fails to make the 53 man roster. Shortly there after, San Francisco picked him up from the waiver wire.

Reading reports of Gibson coming out of college, I was extremely high on him going to the San Francisco 49ers. I had even thought they might draft him instead of NaVorro Bowman in the 3rd round, but it never materialized. Gibson is more than just a pass rusher and is a solid all around player. He lacks a lot of physical ability to play closer to the line of scrimmage, so the 3-4 OLB spot seems to fit him extremely well. In just a couple games with the 49ers last season Gibson did record 2 forced fumbles. It is hard to project at this point how Gibson stands in regards to the 53 man roster, but he does have a tremendous amount of upside.

Blake Costanzo: Purely a special teams player, Costanzo was an ace for ST coach Brad Sealy with the Cleveland Browns over the last couple of season. In fact, he has recorded 4 forced fumbles and 4 fumble recoveries during that span. It has been said that he is an absolute nut on the field and might have a few screws loose. Well, doesn't every team need that on their roster? My presumption is that Costanzo makes the team as a special teams players because of the new regimes focus on special teams.

Kenny Rowe: Still hard to figure why the former Oregon Duck standout went undrafted in April's draft. He has recorded a whopping 18 sacks over the last two seasons and seems to fit perfectly into what 3-4 teams are looking for in regards to a rushing backer. It is still a long shot that Rowe makes the team, but I really want to see him get some reps in the preseason. At the very least, you are looking at a great practice squad addition.

My Outside Linebacker Depth Chart

1. Aldon Smith

2. Ahmad Brooks

3. Parys Haralson

4. Antwan Applewhite

5. Blake Castonzo

6. Thaddeus Gibson

7. Kenny Rowe

Inside linebackers

At this point the only competition that Patrick Willis is involved in is being the best defensive player in the entire league. So, I am not even going to mention him in this article.

NaVorro Bowman: The loss of Takeo Spikes did hurt San Francisco, but they do have a young inside linebacker ready to take over. Bowman, a 3rd round pick from Penn State in April, has shown flashed of being an extremely solid starter in the NFL. He played pretty darn well in limited action as a rookie.. However, he was a liability in coverage and showed how inexperience can hurt a team.

I fully expect Patrick Willis and the coaching staff to work with Bowman during training camp in order to get these issues fixed. I think that we will all be surprised at how performs as a Soph in 2011.

Scott McKillop: He was a special teams ace for San Francisco as a rookie in 2009, but went down to unjury prior to the 2010 season. It seems that McKillop is now at full strength and ready to challenge Bowman, if possible, for the starting MLB spot opposite Patrick Willis. That is going to be an uphill climb for the young backer, but he has the talent and determination to make it interesting. At the very least, McKillop will make the roster as the 3rd MLB and special teams ace

Keaton Kristick: I don't know what it is, but I like the way this guy plays. I have seen tape on him at Oregon State and watched him playing during the preseason last year. He seems to have the "it factor", meaning that he is the type of player that isn't afraid to put his nose in there and get dirty. My comparison to Kristick would be former 49er linebacker Jamie Winborn. Someone, that doesn't have the most talent and doesn't look like a backer, but can play. He will be one of the players vying for the final MLB spot on the 53 man roster.

Larry Grant: The Santa Rosa native, was drafted by the 49ers in 2008, but didn't stick on the roster. St. Louis picked him up from the practice squad and he great for them in limited action over the last couple seasons. He started 8 games for the Rams in 2010, recording 24 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. This is a player that was brought in strictly for depth. San Francisco isn't looking at him being a starting linebacker in their defense. Instead, they are looking for him to come in and contribute on occasion and fulfill the necessary spot on special teams. If I were a betting man, I would say that Grant has the upper hand over Kristick at this point.

Monte Simmons: An undrafted free agent from Kent State, Simmons recorded 20.5 in four college seasons. He was brought in team a training camp body, so lets see how he performs during the preseason

Alex Joseph: Much like Simmons, Joseph has a long road ahead of him in order to make the 53 man roster. He was a three year starter for the Temple Owls from 2007-2009 before going undrafted.

My Inside Linebacker Depth Chart

1. Patrick Willis

2. NaVorro Bowman

3. Larry Grant

4. Scott McKillop

5. Keaton Kristick

6. Monte Simmons

7. Alex Joseph