As reported on Wednesday, the San Francisco 49ers are expected to keep outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks for 2015-16, or at least that's what general manager Trent Baalke says. To me, his release was a foregone conclusion at the beginning of this offseason and my initial thought was that this was bad news. After giving it more thought I've come to this conclusion: it's complicated.
Brooks has been an above-average starter at times and a guy who is completely invisible at others. I'm pretty darn happy with what the 49ers got out of him given that he was a noted underachiever before coming to San Francisco, but I think his best years are behind him. He's coming off his lowest sack total since 2010 and I thought he was out-played by rookie Aaron Lynch as the season progressed.
Still, 6.0 sacks isn't terrible and Brooks isn't exactly a liability on the field, save for when he's getting penalized. But with a cap hit of $7.055 million in 2015, I'm not exactly sure where he stands. I think Lynch is better on the field, so that would be a whole lot of money going to a backup if, in fact, Brooks was the backup. Given Brooks' complaints at the end of last season, I doubt he'd be fine with that. I don't have faith that this coaching staff would go with a strict backup/starter situation either, and would try and rotate Brooks and Lynch.
But how did they actually compare on the field? Lynch took 100 fewer snaps than Brooks, but still managed 6.0 quarterback sacks. On top of that, he logged eight quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. They credit Brooks with five quarterback hits and 11 quarterback hurries. Lynch also graded out better in run defense and penalties, though slightly worse in pass coverage.
Obviously, that's one area we haven't really seen Lynch. Brooks doesn't do it a lot, but we do at least know that Brooks is capable in pass coverage when needed. We'll need to see more of that from Lynch going forward. For the record, Lynch's hurries number is higher than all but Ray McDonald, who logged 32 hurries before his release.
Lynch rushed the passer 90.8 percent of the time the opposing team dropped back to pass, while Brooks came in at 72.9 percent. That's very, very significant, as far as not seeing a complete game from Lynch just yet is concerned. In straight pass-rushing, Lynch comes out ahead of Brooks by a significant margin. He was faster off the line, he had a better nose for the ball and he was constantly harassing quarterbacks.
But the 49ers are now without Patrick Willis, one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. They're also not particularly keen on keeping Aldon Smith dropping back ... they'd much rather have him rushing at quarterbacks. Dan Skuta was a guy the 49ers used in coverage, and he won't be returning next season.
The thing about saying that the 49ers should probably hold on to Lynch because Brooks plays more coverage than Lynch is that ... I don't think Brooks is particularly great at it. I haven't seen him look particularly solid in that vein, which is why he didn't do it a ton. So if Lynch tries it but isn't great at it, how much of a dropoff will there be? Still, the 49ers have to be confident that their starters can ... start, which means a lot of what happens with Brooks depends on how they feel about Lynch's completeness.
I'm interested to hear what everyone thinks. Should Brooks stay at his current cap hit, especially if he won't take a paycut? If he stays, do you want a rotation, do you want him to start above Lynch or are you on the Lynch train like I am? Decisions, decisions ...