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San Francisco 49ers: Ahmad Brooks as the 2012 Breakout Player on Defense

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In 2011, Brooks started 16 games for the first time in his professional career, taking the fourth most defensive snaps on the team. In that season the linebacker registered 50 tackles, 7 sacks and one forced fumble -- two of which were career-bests. He was rewarded with a 6-year, $44.5 million contract, which will keep him with San Francisco through 2017.

Brooks is one of the more underrated players on the 49ers defense, but is still a very strong player for the top-ranked unit. His arrival to the 49ers was a little unorthodox, being claimed off waivers after the Cincinnati Bengals elected not to retain him. Brooks had a slightly troubled past that included marijuana and assault charges on two separate occasions -- he even had to enter the league via the NFL Supplemental Draft.

But on the field, he could definitely play. In high school, he was the 2001 USA Today Defensive Player of the Year and was one of three Butkus Award finalists as a sophomore at the University of Virginia. But his college career was cut short after the team dismissed him following the 2005 season when he was a junior, citing numerous off-the-field incidents.

The 49ers acquired this very talented player right about the time he decided to get his act together and make a real go at this football thing while it lasts. And hats off to Trent Baalke and the 49ers management for knowing what they had; letting Manny Lawson walk via free agency and eventually re-signing Brooks long-term because he performed so well.

In 2012, Brooks will be entering his second season as a starter and is a star to watch rise. Having just received his first big contract and knowing he is the guy for San Francisco, Brooks should show growth upcoming. Besides his talent and his relationship with the team that believed in him, there are a plethora of other reasons why Brooks is bound to breakout in 2012.

And while many would say that Brooks broke out in 2011, I say it was just the beginning of something bigger.

Not only is Brooks 1 of 11 very good football players on the Niners' defense, but he is in the league's best -- and still improving -- front seven. It's a unit that's spotlit by names like Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and now Aldon Smith. Brooks doesn't get the same sort of headlines as those players even though he pulls a significant amount of weight.

Willis and Bowman primarily the handle running backs and tight ends, with Willis covering the tight ends more often than not. Last season Bowman was often responsible for the running backs and spying the occasional scrambling quarterback. Brooks was used mostly downhill as a disruptive force, setting the edge and getting to the quarterbacks and running backs.

In that system, Brooks excelled and will get plenty of opportunities to do the same sort of work this coming season.

From a blitz protection perspective, Aldon Smith will be the highlighted man on defense. Teams will be looking at the guy who was tied for fifth in the league in sacks (14) as a rookie and not the older player who had half that. Offenses will be calling protections for No. 99 and I predict that a few times this season, Brooks will have a free lane at the quarterback.

Aldon Smith presents a lot of issues for an offense, and a very good player like Brooks will reap the benefits of his presence. And maybe Aldon won't have 14 sacks again but instead him and Brooks will each have in the low double-digits. Teams will be so focused on players outside of Brooks, they won't know what hit them when all of sudden No. 55 is having multi-sack performances in 2012.

With the attention grabbing right side of the 49er front featuring Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, the very effective tandem of an improving Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks could take serious advantage. These two were humble backup players that worked their way up into starting roles for the 49ers; blue collar guys who know what it takes to win in this league.

Brooks has what it takes and like the rest of the 49ers, is looking to improve on last years performance. In his second straight year as a starter, I expect a strong season from Ahmad Brooks as he develops in the 49ers evolving 3-4 system. There are a lot of variables that are pointing to a successful campaign for the veteran in the upcoming season; it'll be exciting to see it go down.

Congratulations to the 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings!


Follow me on Twitter: @DeSimone80