Most of the stories you’ve heard about the San Francisco 49ers this offseason have centered around the negative.
Reports of the team’s demise have been rampant, fueled by sudden retirements, coaching changes and free agent departures. Because it’s been a tumultuous time in many ways, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the 49er still have a lot of good football players on both sides of the ball, especially at outside linebacker.
Here’s a look at the four main players who will man the position (barring injury) in 2015.
The ups and downs of Smith have been well documented, but when on his game he’s one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
Smith was on a historic pace, recording 38 sacks over his first 35 regular season games. He hasn’t been the same player since he went to rehab prior to Week 4 in 2013 however, and only has 6 sacks in the 15 games he’s appeared in since. Looking deeper, Smith was held without a sack in 12 of those contests.
Despite the recent regression, Smith has shown signs of his old self during OTA’s, and looks to rebound in the final year of his contract. All signs are pointing up, and Smith could once again be a dominant force on the edge.
After dropping on draft boards because of concerns about his attitude, Lynch was an unknown when the 49ers took him in the fifth round in 2014. It didn’t take long for Lynch to prove his worth though, and he enters this upcoming season as a big part of the defense.
Lynch was a top-10 rusher amongst outside linebackers in terms of efficiency according to Pro Football Focus, with a Pass Rushing Productivity Mark of 10.3. He totaled 41 pressures (six sacks, eight hits, and 27 hurries) and forced his way into the lineup, eventually starting three games.
While Ahmad Brook may still be ahead of him on the depth chart, expect Lynch is get plenty of snaps this upcoming year, especially on passing downs. It wouldn’t be a surprise he leapfrogs Brooks altogether at some point.
While he may be on the downside of his career, Brooks is still a viable option. A second-team All-Pro in 2012 and 2013, Brooks has shown he can play at a high level and was at his best when the team was without Smith for 5 games in 2013. He’s tallied 28 sacks since becoming a full time starter in 2011.
He’ll have trouble holding of Lynch and could be regulated to a backup role at some point, but the two of them could combine for a lethal combination.
While some considered him a first round talent, Harold dropped into the third during the 2015 draft. The 49ers jumped on him with 79th overall pick, as they see a player brimming with upside.
Harold recorded 15.5 sacks in his final two collegiate seasons with Virginia, and has the body type (6’4, 230 pounds) that makes him an ideal fit for the 49ers’ 3-4 system.
It will be interesting to see how San Francisco uses him in 2015, and whether or not he sees the field much backing up Smith. Still, he gives the defense a fourth player who can get after the quarterback and another option down the line should Smith not return.
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