When the San Francisco 49ers needed Ahmad Brooks the most, the outside linebacker stepped up his game.
The team was in a bad situation in 2013, having lost back-to-back games in lopsided fashion while falling into a 1-2 hole to start the year. As if things weren’t bleak enough, the Niners were set to be without Brooks’ counterpart, Aldon Smith, for the foreseeable future as the troubled pass rusher was set to enter rehab for substance abuse.
Instead of continuing to regress, the 49ers would win their next five games en route to a 12-4 finish. A big reason for that was the play of Brooks, who finished with a career-high 8.5 sacks and earned his first Pro Bowl selection.
San Francisco has again had its share of issues during the 2014 campaign, most notably the key losses they’ve had to deal with on defense. Smith (suspension), NaVorro Bowman, and Glenn Dorsey are yet to suit up. In addition to them, Tramaine Brock, Patrick Willis, Chris Culliver, and Jimmie Ward have all missed time.
Despite the losses, the defense has played very well for most of the season (sans a Week 7 thrashing by the Denver Broncos), but they’ve done so without getting a consistent contribution from Brooks.
While it seemed like his name was called every other play last year, Brooks has been invisible at times so far in 2014. He’s struggled rushing the passer, and according to Pro Football Focus has a push rush grade of -7.9 which is 48th out of 49 for outside linebackers.
While Brooks does have three sacks this season, he’s been held without one in five of seven games, and hasn’t provided consistent pressure. While that’s an issue in itself, his lack of overall play-making ability so far may be even more of a concern.
Brooks averaged 6.5 passes defensed and two forced fumbles from 2012-13. He only has one pass defended this year, and is yet to jar a ball loose. In addition, he’s only on pace for 36 tackles this season, after averaging 52 the past three years.
Is the lack of production due to a declining performance, or other factors? A lot of it could have to do with who the 49ers are missing around him, but you have to also consider that Brooks is now 30-years-old and could be in decline.
Either way, his unsteady play is something the 49ers have to consider before moving forward with Brooks, considering he has three years and just under $28 million remaining on his contract. His cap hit will be about $9.6 million in each of the next two years, with $3 million of dead money in 2015 and $1.5 million in 2016.
Skuta is an unrestricted free agent after the season but could be resigned at a fraction of what Brooks is owed. He could handle the running downs while Lynch comes in for pass rush situations (similar to what the duo is doing now in Smith’s absence).
Lynch has been a boon for the 49ers pass rush, and while he only has one sack, Pro Football Focus gives him a pass rush grade of +5.0 which means he’s getting consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Lynch’s cap hit is only $559,500 next season.
Whether Brooks picks up his play or not, there’s a real possibility that the 49ers approach him about restructuring his contract, or his days in San Francisco could be numbered. As long as Smith can keep himself on the field, the depth the team has at the outside linebacker position allows them some flexibility.
It will interesting to see how Brooks responds to his slow start, and if his performance improves as some of the missing pieces start to return to the field. If not, Skuta and Lynch could see more action than expected when Smith returns.
Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
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