The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2015 NFL Draft with two impressive pass rushing talents in Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch, and a strong all-around performer in Ahmad Brooks. Dan Skuta departed in free agency, but with a full year of Aldon, and Lynch with a year under his belt, the team had some solid options. Of course, Smith is hitting free agency after this season, and the future of Brooks was already unclear, even before the sexual assault lawsuit. The team also has Corey Lemonier, but his slip in playing time last season does not bode well for his future.
Enter Eli Harold (check out David Neumann's film study).
The 49ers invested a third round pick in the Virginia outside linebacker last weekend. He will join the team for minicamp next weekend, but in the meantime, he seems pretty fired up to get learning. The question now is how much an impact can he make in year one?
The 49ers will start Aldon Smith at one outside linebacker spot. Prior to the draft, my guess was the second spot would see Ahmad Brooks starting, and Aaron Lynch rotating in on pass rush downs. Brooks can still be an effective pass rusher when he is not jumping offsides, but the "Parys Haralson treatment" seems to be underway.
Last season, Skuta and Lynch got extensive work early in the season due to Smith's suspension. Lynch and Skuta remained fairly active after that due in part to Brooks's problems at times with the coaching staff. It was not a particularly ideal situation, but the 49ers depth at OLB did get a chance to shine.
It is hard to fully assess Harold's potential impact for several reasons. Aside from the fact that he is just now entering the league, we don't know what will happen with Ahmad Brooks. If the 49ers were to release him, it opens the door for significant playing time for Harold. If Brooks remains on the roster heading into the upcoming season, obviously it is a little less playing time.
But operating under the assumption that Brooks is on the roster, maybe we see the 49ers move to a significantly deeper rotation in the pass rush. They could keep their unit fresh by having four different guys rotating in and out. You could argue we might even see this at the cornerback position. The team did not add any rookie cornerbacks this year, but signed Shareece Wright, re-signed Chris Cook, and have several youngsters from last year. Maybe the defense goes for an even greater rotation to keep players fresh.
Harold will be an interesting player to watch in year one because he brings a potentially strong pass rushing presence. He has limitations to his game, but as David Neumann pointed out, he enters a pretty ideal situation in San Francisco. He will get opportunities in areas where he can find success, and that should mean an improved 49ers pass rush in 2015.