Ever since head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke took over in San Francisco, the 49ers have shown that they have one of the best front offices in the league when it comes to drafting.
From the beginning of 2011 until now, this franchise has selected top-notch players like outside linebacker Aldon Smith, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, running back Kendall Hunter and countless others.
Yet, we haven’t seen much from the franchise’s 2013 draft class, as a whole, through seven games. Free safety Eric Reid has been as good as advertised and tight end Vance McDonald has made his presence felt in the run game, but other than that few have contributed week in and week out.
However, there is one other player who has started to take the lineup by storm over the course of the last four weeks, outside linebacker Corey Lemonier. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Lemonier has garnered 17 quarterback pressures on 114 pass-rush snaps.
Of those 17 quarterback pressures, 14 have been quarterback hurries, two have been quarterback hits and one was a quarterback sack. The best game of his young career came against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6. In that game, he registered his only sack of the season and three quarterback hurries.
His sack on quarterback Carson Palmer resulted in a safety, and it gave the 49ers a lead early in the second quarter. Who would have imagined that a Day 2 rookie selection would have immediately filled Smith’s pass-rushing role in his absence?
The 49ers did: Prior to the draft, Harbaugh, Baalke and San Francisco’s scouts loved what they saw on tape from the 255-pound power-rusher off the edge. While at the University of Auburn, Lemonier impressed the masses with his nonstop motor and quick first step.
Draft pundits compared him to Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Andre Branch. It’s obvious that Lemonier is well on his way to outperforming and outproducing Branch. With the amount of playing time he has earned recently, there’s no question his stock is on the rise, right?
That’s right: Harbaugh took the time to single out the rookie when he spoke to the media on Oct. 14.
Here’s what San Francisco’s third-year head coach had to say when he was asked about how Lemonier’s recent playing time can aid the young pass-rusher's development, as reported by David Fucillo of NinersNation.com. "Obvious answer is it helps a lot. Get better at football by playing football. He's doing some very good things."
Harbaugh hasn’t been the only one who has showered Lemonier with praise. Scouts Inc. draft expert Steve Muench believes he has real NFL pass-rush potential. On Oct. 8, Meunch revealed to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com that the rookie edge-rusher’s initial burst and closing speed make him a constant threat in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme.
Meunch hit the nail on the head with that statement, because Lemonier has been as dependable as they come. Pro Football Focus awarded him with a positive pass-rush grade for the third consecutive week after a fine outing versus the Tennessee Titans.
Nonetheless, Lemonier can’t let his favorable performances go to his head. He needs to continuously progress and show improvement from one week to the next. Ben Stockwell of PFF concludes that the next step in his development as a pass-rusher will come when he’s able to turn his pressures into hits and sacks.
Without a doubt, there will be a time when his pressures come full circle, but we shouldn’t expect it to happen overnight. Sure, outside linebackers Von Miller and Smith made their presence felt right away as sack masters, yet few rookies have the ability to put up gaudy numbers like they did. And that’s ok.
If the 49ers would have expected that type of production out of Lemonier instantaneously, they would have drafted him in the first round. He was a third-round pick for a reason. By no means is that a knock on him; it’s the truth. He has flaws just like every other player in the NFL.
The keys to improving will fall not only on his shoulders, but on those of Fangio, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and outside linebackers coach Peter Hansen. For the foreseeable future, those three men will all play huge roles in his development.
Based on what we know, Fangio, Tomsula and Hansen are considered to be three of the best at their respective coaching positions, so Lemonier should consider himself lucky. He has the opportunity to turn his above-average skill set into a dominant skill set.
All of this leads me to one simple question: Is Lemonier the next pass-rushing phenomenon in the making?
Despite the fact he has appeared in only NFL five games, the answer is yes. Why? Because he has all the tools you look for in a first-class pass-rusher, and San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme helps accentuate the things he does well.
Coming into the NFL, plenty of collegiate players have enough talent to play in the NFL, yet some are drafted into undeserving situations where they don’t fit a particular team’s scheme. This, in turn, has led to the downfall of some very gifted athletes over the years.
The same can be said about coaches and front office staffs. Plenty know how to evaluate and draft proficient players, yet there are times when they don’t use the player correctly. And when it comes right down to it, it’s all about fit in the NFL.
Fortunately for Lemonier, he appears to be a perfect fit in The City by the Bay.