What makes a good outside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers a year ago and what makes one now aren’t necessarily that different. They are technically switching to a 4-3 defense, but they played an awful lot of that already in recent years. Across the league, teams are playing the fifth defensive back more and more, and that has often resulted in the loss of an inside linebacker.
And with the 49ers, having outside linebackers who specialize in rushing the passer also worked out in their favor. Aaron Lynch put his hand in the ground an awful lot when he was healthy, and the 49ers have invested heavily in the defensive line. As a result, the 49ers’ needs at outside linebacker are still pretty similar to before.
Last season, the 49ers had Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch, Eli Harold and Ray-Ray Armstrong at outside linebacker. Armstrong was primarily a special teams player, and guys like Gerald Hodges also factored into the discussion when it came to outside.
Lynch produced just 1.5 sacks and dealt with injuries throughout the season. Brooks had 6.0 sacks, and Harold managed 3.0 sacks before the season was up.
This offseason, the 49ers brought in Robert Saleh as their new defensive coordinator and he will switch the team to a 4-3 defense. This results in a formal position change to defensive end for Lynch, though Brooks, Armstrong and Hodges remain outside. Lynch probably is not done dropping back in coverage, but he’s not really in this conversation right now.
San Francisco signed Malcolm Smith from the Oakland Raiders and Dekoda Watson from the Denver Broncos. Smith has been listed as an inside linebacker, but smart money is on him being heavy in the conversation on the outside given his range and skillset. Watson has starting experience and will also likely be a factor. Both were quality signings as far as I’m concerned.
Hodges, a free agent, remains unsigned.
NaVorro Bowman is the starter at inside linebacker and that’s really all that’s set in stone. Brooks is probably guaranteed one starting spot, while the other one will come down to Smith, Watson, Armstrong and potentially some of the other inside guys.
But ultimately, I think there’s a lot of room there for improvement. If Brooks isn’t going anywhere this offseason, he’s definitely going somewhere soon. Not to mention he’s had some issues on and off the field and is getting up there in years.
I think the 49ers need to draft someone at the position, someone relatively high up. We’re going to look at some of the potential draftees below, taking a look at a handful of early-round guys and a handful of late-round guys. It’s not a definitive list, especially with the quirks between outside linebackers and defensive ends. Post any guys you really like that I don’t cover in the comments.
Haason Reddick, Temple: Other than some issues in the run game, Reddick is a very effective, athletic player who should be drafted in the first round. He was originally a defensive back, and has the range to show it.
Jarrad Davis, Florida: Very fast, with speed all over the field and the most range of anybody in the class. He could play any linebacker position but I think he’d fit best on the outside. He does have a lot of skill rushing the passer though, so the 49ers would have to compete with 3-4 teams who want to use him there. He could go in the first round.
T.J. Watt, Wisconsin: Watt entered the draft early and I think it was a good decision. Some think he can put on weight and become a pure defensive end but I disagree, I think he has the range and instincts to make a premium outside linebacker in the NFL.
Tyus Bowser, Houston: He had 47 tackles, 12 for a loss and 8.5 sacks to go with a forced fumble last year. He was a very good edge rusher with a lot of potential as a pass rusher. He has the range to perform in pass coverage but did very little of it in college, but ultimately has a very high ceiling.
Ryan Anderson, Alabama: A strongside linebacker prospect, Anderson is a pass rusher who spent a good amount of time in pass coverage last season. He had a pick, two passes broken up and three forced fumbles last year. He could be around in the third round.
Avery Moss, Youngstown State: A lesser-known prospect, Moss has a lot of speed off the line and there is some versatility built into his frame. He had 17.5 tackles for loss with Youngstown State in 2016.
Duke Riley, LSU: I think Riley is for sure a weakside 4-3 linebacker in the NFL. He had an interception in 2016 to go with his 93 tackles and nine tackles for a loss.
Vince Biegel, Wisconsin: Biegel went a bit under the radar for Wisconsin but I think there’s a lot to like. He could be around in the seventh round and he’s pretty well-developed already, doing everything pretty well.