Much of the offseason focus has dealt with Colin Kaepernick's changing mechanics. The quarterback is generally the most important position on the field given how frequently he touches the ball. However, one area where the San Francisco 49ers will need to improve their consistency is in the pass rush. They have several talented pass rushers, but for one reason or another they have had some issues with consistency.
Aldon Smith is the big name in the group, and will look to return to his dominant 2012 form. If he can avoid off-the-field troubles, he could very well be in line for a huge 2015. Considering he is in a contract year, he has a lot to gain this season. The one drawback at the moment is the departure of Justin Smith. Aldon brings significant talent as a pass-rusher, but we would be lying to ourselves if we said he did not also benefit from Justin's presence.
The folks at Pro Football Focus recently put together some thoughts on the top ten potential pass rushers for 2015. They don't list criteria, but rather it is meant more as general thoughts heading into 2015. It is no surprise they list J.J. Watt at the top of the list. They follow him with Cameron Wake, Justin Houston, Gerald McCoy, Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Brandon Graham, Ezekiel Ansah, Malik Jackson and Vic Beasley.
I am not entirely shocked Aldon Smith is not included in that list. He has not played a full season since 2012, dealing with rehab in 2013 and a suspension in 2014. He appears to be having a good offseason, but there is plenty left, and it is on him to prove the doubters wrong.
Smith finished ninth among 3-4 outside linebackers in pass rush productivity last season, but that was also among players who played at least 25 percent of defensive snaps. The list defaults to 50 percent of defensive snaps. His 9-game suspension obviously prevented that from happening.
I decided to look back at 2012, when Aldon Smith had his monster season. He finished the season with 19.5 sacks and 37 hurries. He was second among 3-4 OLBs in PFF's "Pass Rush Productivity" stat, at 11.4 . PRP measures pressure created on a per snap basis (sacks, hits and hurries), with weighting toward sacks. Among all pass rushers, he finished behind J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Cameron Wake, Charles Johnson and Justin Smith.
The 49ers have the talent to put together a strong pass rush in 2015, but there are of course questions. Aside from Aldon, the team has Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch and Eli Harold. Brooks is coming off a down year in which he did not seem to have it all together. Lynch emerged as a rookie force, and will look to build on that in year two. Harold has pass rushing skills, but will need to work his way into the rotation.
Tank Carradine and Darnell Dockett are two potentially fearsome pass rushers on the line, but both have questions. Dockett is recovering from his torn ACL, while Tank has struggled to force his way onto the field. The departures of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald open the door for opportunities, but they also represent a serious loss of talent. The pass rushers bring plenty of talent, but they will also be dependent to some extent on what the new-look defensive line brings to the table.