Pass on the Pass Rush: The State of San Francisco 49ers' Outside Linebackers

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Pass on the Pass Rush: The State of San Francisco 49ers' Outside Linebackers
(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Following the 2009 NFL draft, detractors criticized the 49er front office for failing to address their vacancy of pass rushers. 

Although recently exacerbated by passing on sack artists like Brian Orakpo, Aaron Maybin, and Everette Brown, fans have accused the 49ers franchise of pass rush negligence for years. In most cases, such concerns are well-founded. 

Since spending their first round pick (22nd overall) of the 2006 NFL draft on defensive end Manny Lawson, the franchise has yet to legitimately address the position of pass rushing OLB. No, the Tully Banta Cain experiment doesn’t count.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, Manny Lawson has yet to live up to his expectations as a pass rusher.  Although proving to be effective in pass coverage and punt blocking, while registering some impressive tackles for loss, Lawson has accumulated just 5.5 sacks in his unremarkable three year career.

Despite his lack of past NFL production, there is hope for Manny yet.  Lawson played sparingly in his first season in the league, starting 12 games, with a majority of his snaps coming on first and second down. 

He finished the season with 2.5 sacks.  Given the rookie learning curve and his absence on third downs, his lack of production in 2006 is well-justified. 

Then there is 2007.  Manny Lawson looked great in his 2007 season...all two games of it. Once tearing his ACL in the practices leading up to the week three contest, Lawson, unlike opposing quarterbacks, spent the remainder of the season on the Injured Reserve list. 

Given the inhibiting and largely devastating nature of an ACL tear, Lawson’s 2008 season was expectedly lackluster.  While still fully recovering from his recent ACL injury, Lawson managed to start 10 games, accumulating a career high three sacks.

Like his rookie season, Lawson saw the field primarily on first and second downs, limiting his pass rushing impact.

Given the unfortunate set backs he’s faced, the flashes of playmaking ability he demonstrated in limited opportunities and the raw athletic potential that made him a 22nd overall selection, 49er fans would be irrational to immediately rule Lawson out.

Like cracking jokes about tragedy, the 49ers front office likely thought it to be “too soon” to invest yet another high draft pick on a pass rusher. 

The 49ers current leading sack artist is Parys Haralson, a former defensive end out of Tennessee, and fifth round (140th overall) pick from Lawson’s very same 2006 draft class.

In 2008, entering his first season as the teams starting outside linebacker, Haralson did not disappoint.  Like the improvement he experienced over the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Parys Haralson was a better player with each game he played in 2008.

At years end, Haralson led the team with a career high eight sacks. After signing Haralson to a four-year, $15 million contract extension this offseason, the 49ers have at least one franchise outside linebacker for the long term future. 

With the 2009 starters of Lawson and Haralson in place, you may find yourself asking, “what about depth at outside linebacker?” Despite losing the one-dimensional Roderick Green in the offseason, the 49ers have an excess of outside linebackers. 

First there is Jay Moore, former Nebraska defensive end and 2007 fourth round (104th overall) draft pick of the 49ers. Moore, who turned heads in his rookie training camp for his impressive pass-rush ability, has been the victim of nagging injuries and a crowded depth chart in his first two seasons. 

In 2007 he received a relatively severe high ankle sprain, which landed him on Injured Reserve before his rookie season even began. Similar misfortune struck Moore once again in 2008, tearing his bicep in the final preseason game against the San Diego chargers, a mishap which once again landed him on IR. 

Although certainly legitimate injuries, they were by no means of season ending severity (ankle sprain especially), leaving reason to believe the 49ers benefited by maintaining the rights to his services without using up a spot on their 53-man roster. 

Keep in mind, the outside linebacker position was fairly crowded with former depth players of Tully Banta Cain and Roderick Green still on the roster.

Despite not seeing playing time during the regular NFL season, Jay Moore has done nothing to show that he isn’t capable of playing in the NFL (besides maybe staying healthy). 

Given that any potential draft pick would be equally, if not more so unproven, the 49ers saw no point in using a second day selection on a college player they thought less of than the 2007 Jay Moore prospect.    

Moore, who posted an eye-popping three sacks and two forced fumbles in the 2007 Senior Bowl, figured to be a steal as a fourth-round selection of a much more talented draft class. 

In having two seasons to mature, both mentally and physically, and adapt to the lifestyle of the NFL, this will be Moore’s make-or-break year as a member of the 49ers.

Next there is Ahmad Brooks.  As a collegiate player Ahmad Brooks was destined to be a top-five draft pick, and one of the best college line backers in the past 20 years. 

After missing three games while recovering from a knee injury and being dismissed from Virginia following his 2005 season due to disciplinary problems, Brooks’ injury and character concerns dropped him to the third round of the 2007 supplemental draft.

It was there that the Cincinnati Bengals thought his services would be worthy of foregoing a 2008 third round selection.

With just five starts during the 2007 NFL season, Brooks posted 46 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 passes defended while playing at the middle linebacker position. Brooks looked to have an increasing impact in 2008 before tearing his groin in week two and landing on injured reserve. 

After being cut in the following offseason, the 49ers (who also were willing to part with a selection for Brooks in the supplemental draft) picked him up off of waivers and stashed him on their roster. 

After developing Brooks for a season, and transitioning the former college star to outside linebacker, the 49er figure he can make a strong enough pass rushing impact. While hopeful, it’s certainly possible given that he exhibited tremendous pass rush ability throughout his college career and limited NFL starts. 

With two starters and two veteran backups at OLB, the 49ers added a couple wild card pass rushers following the conclusion of the draft. 

First there is the one-dimensional yet dangerous Marques Harris, who after four NFL seasons and just six starts, has posted eight career NFL sacks.  His best season came in 2008, where he performed commendably in place of the injured Shawne Merriman, posting 2.5 sacks in just three starts.

Second of the recent additions is former Bowling Green outside linebacker Diryal Briggs.  Briggs was a pass rushing terror in his collegiate career, posting 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss on his way to a first-team All-MAC selection.

He compares favorably to fellow All-MAC outside linebacker and San Diego Charger first-round draft pick Larry English who posted 8 sacks and 16 tackles-for-loss in 2008.  If Diryal can produce half of what English does, the 49ers landed a steal in undrafted free agency.

In addition to the provided depth of these outside line backer additions, defensive end Justin Smith, who often-times lined up as the prized “elephant” pass rusher, has proven that he can fill that pass rusher role in a pinch. 

With these eight outside linebackers in place, it’s easy to see why the 49ers fans didn’t hear an outside linebacker called in 2008. 

If the Lawson experiment ultimately fails, expect to hear the 49ers call the name of outside linebacker prospects Greg Hardy, George Selvie, or Sergio Kindle early in the 2010 NFL draft.  With two first round picks, the 49ers certainly have the ammunition to do so.

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