When I think about the San Francisco 49ers' outside linebacker position, especially in recent times, I'm reminded of how absolutely disappointing it's been. Notably, I can't help but think how messed up the Aldon Smith situation has been. The guy has shown otherworldly ability as a pass-rusher, and when I look at guys like J.J. Watt and Justin Houston dominating the defensive headlines, all I can think is "Smith should be there."
But various off-the-field issues has limited his ability, derailed the freight train of awesome that set the record for sacks for any single player over his first two seasons. That isn't to say that the train can not or will not get back on the tracks, it's just such a disappointing situation altogether.
Not content to let Smith wallow in his own disappointment, Ahmad Brooks tripped up this past season as well. We'll talk more about Brooks a bit later, but the position was a pretty good representative sample of the 49ers' dysfunction in 2014-15.
It's not all bad, and you know if I'm the one saying something positive, it's true. Aaron Lynch burst into the scene and Smith is still here for at least another season, so the future is likely bright. I do wonder how much the position depends on Justin Smith either returning to help free these guys up or a potentially dominant first-round pick to do the same, though.
Aldon Smith - 7 games, 15 tackles, 2 sacks
Smith elected to check himself into rehab in 2013, which led many to believe that he'd get a reduced punishment from the league in 2014. That didn't happen, as he was ultimately suspended for nine games, essentially wiping out the thought of a particularly productive season. When he came back, his presence didn't lead to a drastic change in the defense's play by any means.
But that definitely has a lot to do with him being a bit rusty. He looked good rushing the passer, but it was basically too little, too late, especially given that the 49ers were eliminated from the playoff race in Week 15. Evaluating his 2014 season begins and ends with the fact that he missed games and that's his fault. In the same way that we can harp on a player for his lacking play, this is also lacking play, just under different circumstances.
That said, Smith is here for 2015 (though the 49ers can release him with no penalty before March 10) and will be motivated in a contract year. I'd love for him to keep his nose clean and wreak havoc on offensive lines and quarterbacks, earning a big contract from the pass-rush-challenged 49ers along the way. But for now, that's just one of multiple possibilities.
Ahmad Brooks - 13 games, 30 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 3 passes defensed
Brooks had one of his least-productive seasons since emerging as a pass-rushing threat in 2010. His tackle numbers were down and his six sacks weren't particularly impressive. He also has his issues with penalties that were just as frustrating last season as they have been in the past.
I've been very happy with Brooks for the most part. He had some off-the-field issues and effort concerns coming out of college and with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2007, but aside from one incident, he's been better in that regard. Unfortunately, Brooks threw a big fit when he wasn't happy with the way he was being used and the 49ers forced him to sit out a game.
I wasn't a big fan of the team giving Brooks more snaps the following week -- it seemed an odd move to reward that kind of behavior, and by that point, I thought Brooks was being out-played. Whatever the case, Brooks looked decent enough as an outside linebacker, but with a cap hit of $7 million in 2014, it would be tough to keep him around.
Aaron Lynch - 16 games, 23 tackles, 6 sacks, 4 passes defensed
Lynch fell in the draft due to issues with his work ethic, with much of the pre-draft talk comparing him favorably to the top pass rushers coming out last year. It's the kind of rhetoric that gets fans' hopes up real nice, and then completely falls apart when it becomes clear other teams avoided that player for a reason. That made it all the sweeter when Lynch came out and, in a couple words, kicked some [site decorum].
Lynch managed to put up six sacks, though he was causing havoc a whole lot more than that. I thought he did a great job tracking down quarterbacks and forcing them out of the pocket. He didn't get the sack every time, but Lynch was far more disruptive than Brooks as the season wore on.
Early in the season, I noticed Lynch did let a couple sacks and tackles for loss get away from him when he had the guy in his reach ... but not everyone is Justin Smith, you know? Fortunately, I noticed Lynch improving quite a bit in that regard down the stretch, and I thought he was serviceable in the run game as well. Lynch reached a point where, when he wasn't on the field, I thought the 49ers were making a mistake.
Dan Skuta - 14 games, 33 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 pass defensed
I have to wonder what we would be saying about Skuta right now had Lynch not turned out as good as he's looking. I say that because I thought Skuta looked phenomenal at times and more than serviceable at others. On top of being solid against the pass and the fact that he led all outside linebackers in tackles, Skuta showcased some very solid pass-rushing ability at times.
Around halfway through the season, I stopped being upset that Skuta was getting snaps over Lynch (and shifted that to Brooks) because he was playing so well. I almost wonder if it was lightning in a bottle, given that Skuta was originally brought here to be a special teams player. Whatever the case, it's looking like Skuta, who is about to become an unrestricted free agent, has priced himself out of the 49ers' range. He's looking at a big pay raise next year.
Corey Lemonier - 16 games, 10 tackles
Lemonier had some pretty solid potential coming out of college, especially as a pass-rusher. He reminded me a lot of Manny Lawson, but with a more natural feel for pass-rushing. I still think he fits that mold, but for whatever reason, he hasn't had many opportunities. Obviously, someone like Lynch did more with fewer opportunities and that's why he's playing more now, but I still have a little hope that Lemonier can be something.
What I can say for sure: I thought Lemonier was fundamentally sound, especially down the stretch. He only played in 143 snaps last season -- significantly fewer than Lynch, who put up 514 snaps -- but I think the 49ers still like him. Whether or not they like him enough to be a primary backup is the big question.
The biggest issue, right now, is that both Smith and Brooks will count around $17 million against the salary cap next season, with Brooks alone scheduled to make $7 million. He's been listed as a potential cap casualty for some time now and while I think he's been great for the 49ers, his issues aside, it wouldn't hurt the team too much to get rid of him.
Lynch is likely to take over a starting role, though behind him it's a little unclear. Skuta is likely looking at a pay raise in free agency, which leaves Lemonier, who again did perform better down the stretch in 2014. That leads me to believe that pursuing someone in free agency isn't totally out of the question. Below is a list of some of the outside linebackers set to hit the open market:
Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers
Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears
Jabal Sheard, Cleveland Browns
Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals
Brian Orakpo, Washington
Pernell McPhee, Baltimore Ravens
Dwight Freeney, San Diego Chargers
John Abraham, Arizona Cardinals
Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills
Brooks Reed, Houston Texans
As far as the NFL Draft is concerned, I doubt the 49ers want to back up Lynch and possibly Lemonier with a rookie, but I'd be surprised if one of them wasn't grabbed at some point in the draft. I'm just assuming that a defensive lineman is a bigger priority for early in the draft. If the 49ers do draft an outside linebacker, you can bet that he'll have really long arms and he'll probably be a converted defensive end, because that fits Trent Baalke's modus operandi.
Rather than list a couple tables of players here, I'll instead link the outside linebacker rankings from Mocking The Draft's Dan Kadar, and also his defensive end rankings. That should be a good starting point to do some research on those guys.