It should surprise nobody that 74% of folks were absolutely satisfied with the 49ers inside linebacker position. The future of Larry Grant impacts the depth of the position, but among the starters, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are not too shabby. If the 49ers do no re-sign Grant as a restricted free agent, I'm curious as to whether the team looks to draft a young talent, or simply plug in a veteran given the relative youth of the starters.
Today, we move on to the outside linebacker position. After years of ups and downs and questions marks, the position took a significant step forward. Aldon Smith is the highest profile reason for the improvement, but Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson were integral parts of the 49ers outside linebacker unit. The team played with three outside linebackers the entire season and made it through without a scratch to the unit.
Ahmad Brooks enters free agency this year and represented a pretty important piece of the 49ers puzzle this past year. The team could be looking to go with Aldon Smith and Parys Haralson as their every-down linebackers, but it is also possible after this past season they will look to lock up Brooks at whatever premium it might cost. No position will be harder to predict for the 49ers in free agency. And no position could be further impacted in the 49ers draft than outside linebacker, if the team does not re-sign Brooks.
There were numerous questions about whether Ahmad Brooks could handle an every down role at outside linebacker. There was no doubt about his freakish athleticism, but questions remained about his abilities against the run. He showed in 2011 that he could handle such a role as he was among the team leaders in snaps and was quite effective in all aspects of the game. It was arguably a similar situation to Ray McDonald. They were both great pass rushers, but there were questions about overall effectiveness. Both seemed to answer the question, at least for 2011.
There had been some questions about his character and work ethic as well. While some may look at his 2011 season as a contract push, Matt Barrows put together a great article back in November about Brooks and the impact of his father's death. Sometimes it takes something big like that to clear the mind and get some focus. Whether or not that continues into the future remains to be seen, but if the 49ers wanted to work out a long term deal, Brooks would seem to be a little more focused these days.
What hasn't already been said about the 49ers dominant rookie pass rusher? After a season in which he set the 49ers rookie sack record, the next big step for Smith is improving as a stand-up outside linebacker that could potentially work his way into a starting role in the base 3-4 defense. Of course, if the 49ers want to bring back Ahmad Brooks on a long-term deal, we could very well see Smith continue to work primarily as a nickel defensive end.
Whatever the case with Brooks, Aldon Smith is in a position to take a strong step forward in 2012. He had no real offseason training program in 2011 due to the lockout, which means he gets this full offseason to work on the key aspects of outside linebacker other than making a bee-line to the quarterback.
While Haralson did not wow folks with monster stats, he was quietly a solid first and second down linebacker for the 49ers. He was generally removed when the 49ers went to nickel with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, although he occasionally made appearances in the nickel. As Maiocco put it, Haralson and Smith made for a strong three down combination.
The 49ers have Haralson signed through the 2013, although it's not an overly expensive contract. Ahmad Brooks' impending free agency creates a potentially significant question mark at the position. Depending on what happens with Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson, as well as wide receiver in free agency, is it out of the realm of the possible that the 49ers draft another outside linebacker in the first round? I'm not expecting it, but it wouldn't exactly shock me to see it happen.