The San Francisco 49ers have been disappointing at the outside linebacker position for a long time now, and for varying reasons. When Aldon Smith was taken in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, he drew just as many "Who?" comments as A.J. Jenkins did. Fortunately, Smith is many times over the player that Jenkins is but unfortunately, Smith has had multiple off-the-field issues.
Smith is the kind of player with the talent to make headlines every week, it's just that he's not playing every week. We should be talking about Smith in the same way we see people talking about players like J.J. Watt, but that hasn't panned out, again, due to the off-the-field issues. The result has been Ahmad Brooks carrying the torch as the team's top pass-rusher.
Brooks himself isn't bad and I'm incredibly pleased with his entire body of work with the 49ers. He came to the team as an under-performing player with motivational issues and he's put in multiple quality seasons. Behind Smith the 49ers have always used a number of players, drafting guys like Corey Lemonier and pressing special teams signings like Dan Skuta into action.
The Skuta move turned out to work real well last season, so well that the 49ers had no chance of retaining Skuta in free agency. Lemonier still seems to have some potential but I'm honestly not sure if he'll ever realize it. Fortunately, it seems like the 49ers found another gem at the position in last year's draft, bringing in another guy with questionable motivation but a lot of natural talent in rookie Aaron Lynch.
Then there's Chase Thomas who, unfortunately, tore his ACL this offseason. He was primarily a special teamer to begin with, but he's effectively out of the outside linebacker depth at this point.
Heading into next season, Smith will obviously be one of the starters and Lemonier will obviously be a backup, but I have no idea what's going to go down at the other spot. Lynch was a much better pass rusher last season, but Brooks was asked to do more in the passing game. Outside linebackers have one of the toughest transitions to make in the NFL, given all the things they're asked to do standing up.
My gut tells me Brooks will be the starter and truthfully, I think that's a mistake. I think the 49ers are a better team when Lynch is on the field, but whatever the case, this is what the lineup seems to look like right now:
The free agency period has basically come to a close and the 49ers did not address the position. They're much more concerned with inside linebacker right now, which isn't surprising given the retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. They have three quality players and one promising backup, and that's typically all a team can really ask for at this point, right?
I can't imagine the 49ers will be terribly active searching for an outside linebacker in the 2015 NFL Draft. Lynch is the young guy they should be focusing all of their efforts on right now. If they want him to be a starter, it doesn't make a lot of sense to bring in a rookie to groom, though getting a guy in the later rounds isn't totally off the table. They'll need another body behind Lemonier at this point.
Fortunately, this year's outside lineabcker class is one of the deepest we've seen in recent years. In fact, there are multiple players on the second and third days of the draft with a lot of potential, even as starters. One of my favorite players in this year's draft, Gabe Martin, fits the bill. Whatever the case, here's Dan Kadar of SB Nation's outside linebacker rankings from earlier this month:
|1. Randy Gregory, 6'6, 240 pounds, OLB/DE, Nebraska|
|2. Vic Beasley, 6'3, 235 pounds, OLB/DE, Clemson|
|3. Bud Dupree, 6'4, 264 pounds, OLB/DE, Kentucky|
|4. Shaq Thompson, 6'1, 228 pounds, OLB, Washington|
|5. Eli Harold, 6'4, 250 pounds, OLB/DE, Virginia|
|6. Lorenzo Mauldin, 6'3 5/8, 256 pounds, OLB/DE, Louisville|
|7. Hau'oli Kikaha, 6'2 1/2, 246 pounds, OLB/DE, Washington|
|8. Nate Orchard, 6'3 1/4, 251 pounds, OLB/DE, Utah|
|9. Zack Hodges, 6'2 5/8, 242 pounds, OLB, Harvard|
|10. Kwon Alexander, 6'0 3/4, 227 pounds, OLB, LSU|
|11. Lynden Trail, 6'6 5/8, 269 pounds, OLB, Norfolk State|
|12. Jake Ryan, 6'2 3/4, 238 pounds, OLB, Michigan|
|13. Tony Washington, 6'3 5/8, 247 pounds, OLB, Oregon|
|14. Davis Tull, 6'2, 246 pounds, OLB, Tennessee-Chattanooga|
|15. Norkeithus Otis, 6'1, 235 pounds, OLB, North Carolina|
|16. James Vaughters, 6'1 7/8, 258 pounds, OLB, Stanford|
|17. Max Valles, 6'5, 251 pounds, OLB, Virginia|
|18. Geneo Grissom, 6'3 1/8, 264 pounds, OLB, Oklahoma|
|19. Kyle Emanuel, 6'4 1/2, 254 pounds, OLB, North Dakota State|
|20. Deiontrez Mount, 6'5 1/8, 242 pounds, OLB, Louisville|
|21. Alani Fua, 6'5, 238 pounds, OLB, BYU|
|22. Martell Spaight, 5'11 7/8, 232 pounds, OLB, Arkansas|
|23. Obum Gwacham, 6'5 3/8, 246 pounds, OLB, Oregon State|
|24. Gabe Martin, 6'2, 236 pounds, OLB, Bowling Green|
|25. Thurston Armbrister, 6'3, 241 pounds, OLB, Miami|
|26. Ishaq Williams, 6'5 1/2, 271 pounds, OLB, Notre Dame|
|27. Junior Sylvestre, 6'0, 222 pounds, OLB, Toledo|
|28. Xzavier Dickson, 6'3 1/2, 260 pounds, OLB, Alabama|
|29. Aaron Davis, 5'11 5/8, 225 pounds, OLB, Colorado State|
|30. Chi Chi Ariguozo, 6'3, 230 pounds, OLB, Northwestern|
|31. J.R. Tavai, 6'1 3/4, 249 pounds, DE/OLB, Southern California|
|32. Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, 6'2, 248 pounds, OLB, Maryland|