The San Francisco 49ers used one of their two 5th round picks on South Florida defensive end Aaron Lynch. During his freshman year at Notre Dame, Lynch was an All American. Unexplainably, Lynch left Notre Dame and transferred to South Florida, where he sat out of the 2012 football season.
When Lynch declared for the 2014 draft as a third-year sophomore, he was seen as one of the biggest wild cards at the Combine. The biggest question for teams was why he decided to leave Notre Dame and secondly, why had he lost so much weight. As a freshman, Lynch weighed in at approximately 275 lbs, but entered the draft at 244 lbs. Much of the emphasis surrounded his work ethic. Purportedly, one team even took Lynch off their draft board, because they believed he had lied to them during the Combine interview.
Various off the field issues and character concerns resulted in Lynch falling to the 5th round, when the 49ers decided to roll the dice with the outside linebacker. San Francisco received repeated criticism following the pick. Besides the national media, the strength coach at South Florida, Han Straub tweeted,"Thought an organization with 5 Super Bowl titles would have a stricter draft criteria. Clearly, integrity & character are not a priority." Straub subsequently deleted the tweet, was suspended and resigned shortly thereafter.
Following the draft, Lynch himself acknowledged that his mistakes cost him in the draft. Shortly after training camp, Lynch emerged with two hamstring injuries which prevented him from training with the team. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio didn't think the rookie was physically ready and went on to state:
"He's a guy that came in here after the draft out of shape, was rounding into shape toward the end of the offseason workouts, then pulled - strangely - both hamstrings at once. So he spent June and July rehabbing, not training."
It definitely appears Lynch has had problems with commitment and dedication in the past. However, the 49ers knew this going in. Not surprisingly, following the incidents with Chris Culliver, Aldon Smith and unsubstantiated accusations of Quinton Patton and Colin Kapernick, the media was quick to pounce on any player selected by the 49ers who had any off-the-field issues.
General manager Trent Baalke stated, "This isn't a young man that has a rap sheet that you're dealing with. He's not a young man that's been in a lot of trouble. He's made some mistakes. He's got to do some things differently. He understands that and we as an organization understand that. We have a structure here, a system here, that we feel we can help him. But, ultimately it comes down to the individual, as we all know. With Aaron it will be a process, but a process that we're comfortable he will be able to endure and flourish in."
While it may have been a gamble some teams could not afford, the 49ers felt their locker room would afford the structure needed for Lynch to thrive. And, on Sunday, Lynch started to provide 49ers fans reason to believe the gamble is paying off. While it is only the preseason, Lynch had a monster of a game. According to PFF, Lynch earned a +5.3 grade, including +3.8 rushing the passer. He recorded one sack, two hurries, and also three batted passes. James Brady was kind enough to make these GIFs of Lynch's key plays on Sunday.
The first two GIFs feature Lynch using his strength to get into position for pass deflections. In this first one, the offensive lineman has what appears to be a strong block on Lynch, but he is able to leverage the lineman and get his hand up.
In this second GIF, he uses a bull rush technique to force his way into the quarterback's face. He gets close enough, gets his hand up, and deflects the pass.
In this third GIF, Lynch shows his wingspan and athleticism. He jumps up and gets a hand on the pass. It is subsequently tipped by Dontae Johnson, and then picked off by Jimmie Ward.
Lynch also had a sack on the day, and this play is kind of filthy. The offensive lineman has his arm wrapped around Lynch's neck and is holding him as much as he can. Lynch forces his way through the hold and drags down the quarterback.
Having gained 30 pounds and now weighing in at 276 lbs., Lynch showed tremendous power against the San Diego Chargers. He also showed he is an unselfish player. While Lynch was able to record a sack and tip three passes, the majority of the time, Lynch occupied the tackle and pushed him into the quarterback. His plays allowed the other end to come in and nail the quarterback. If Lynch can get a good bull-rush off, that sets up the tackles, the ends or the blitzing linebackers to get to the quarterback. He knows he can push the tackle into the quarterback's lap, which stops the QB from making a pass. In turn, it helps both the other guys on the defensive line to make the play.
Lynch told KNBR after the game Jim Tomsula was to be praised for helping him achieve success within the team and keeping his confidence high:
"Even though he's on my tail, I get a lot of real positives from him. That's the great thing about it. He's not here to baby me; he's here to make me the best that I can be. He knows how to do it, too. All these coaches know what they're doing. I'm trying to take all that I can from them."
Lynch has a ton of potential and his current size shows he is willing to do the work to become a top tier pass rusher. Given the fact pundits gave the 49ers a D grade for the pick, it is good to see a young player begin to prove experts wrong. While it is still early and nobody has a crystal ball, his play and improvement solidifies he will not only make the team, but has the opportunity to provide a real impact. Currently, Lynch sits behind Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta on the reserve OLB depth chart. However, if he continues to show the relentless pressure he showed on Sunday, he will be a player hard for offenses to ignore. it is my hope the strong locker room environment continues to shape Lynch in a positive way. If so, we can expect great things from the young linebacker.