The San Francisco 49ers are simultaneously loaded and uncertain at the linebacker position. With a foursome of Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks, the 49ers boast one of the better collections of linebacking talent in NFL history, much less the current league.
In 2014, however, that corps will be tested. Bowman is recovering from the knee injury he suffered in the NFC Championship Game. Smith will almost assuredly miss time due to a suspension from the NFL for his various off-field incidents.
That leaves room for up-and-coming players to play an influential role in 2014. One name that you should definitely remember is Corey Lemonier.
You might remember Lemonier from last year’s Smith suspension. Starting in Week 4, Lemonier and Dan Skuta worked in a sort of platoon at the outside pass-rushing position with solid results, before fading back into reserve roles once Smith was back up to full game speed.
That’s just a preview of what’s yet to come with Lemonier, who has the potential to blossom into a full-time starter for the franchise as early as 2015. With a full NFL season under his belt, Lemonier should explode into the national consciousness of NFL fans this season and become a vital contributor to San Francisco’s defense.
The 49ers took Lemonier in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft out of Auburn. In college, Lemonier was a 4-3 defensive end, and a successful one, to boot—Lemonier was named first-team All-SEC in 2011, and made the second team in 2012.
At the NFL combine, Lemonier put up an impressive 4.6 40-yard dash time. That was tied for third-fastest among defensive ends that year, and just misses the top 10 times put up since 2006. That’s great speed for a defensive lineman, and it’s more than adequate for a linebacker as well; it would have been good for third-best among linebackers at this year’s combine.
He combines that speed with a good first step and the agility to drop back into zone coverage. When his speed stops working, his power comes into focus—Lemonier is a great uphill pass rusher, and has the ability to blow through an opposing tackle with force when necessary.
Here’s a highlight reel of Lemonier at Auburn. You can see Lemonier, #55, blow past offensive tackles before they can get his hands on him, as well as fight through blocks to get to his man in the backfield.
Why did Lemonier fall to the third round? First of all, his senior year wasn’t nearly as good as his first two years. Lemonier racked up 9.5 sacks in 2011, and added two more as a true freshman reserve in 2010. In 2012, however, that dropped off to only 5.5 sacks as Auburn imploded.
Secondly, there were questions about his ability to transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker, as he’s a little undersized to play defensive end in the NFL. He never showed real comfort in space, so there was concern as to how he’d work when called upon to provide pass coverage.
The plan, according to the 49ers' own web site, was to draft Lemonier and let him succeed on special teams, while sitting behind Smith and Ahmad Brooks for a few years as he developed his game as a linebacker. Then Smith drove into a tree and went to rehab, and plans changed.
In the NFL
Let’s start with Lemonier’s grades from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Lemonier finished the 2013 season with a plus-3.0 grade in only 284 snaps, grading out well in the green in games against Houston, Arizona and Tennessee. That’s the 22nd-best score in the league.
They credit Lemonier with only one sack, but three quarterback hits and 20 hurries. When you consider the relatively small amount of playing time Lemonier got, that’s even more impressive. Lemonier had a quarterback pressure once every 11.8 snaps; that ranks sixth in the NFL among outside linebackers with at least 100 snaps. By comparison, Aldon Smith got a pressure every 10.6 snaps last season, while Ahmad Brooks went 22.3 snaps between pressures.
Pro Football Focus tweeted a comparison of 2013’s rookie edge-rushers, and Lemonier got pressures more frequently than Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah, Barkevious Mingo and the rest of the 2013 draft class.
At this point in time, Lemonier is a better pass rusher than anything else. This is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation, though, as Lemonier was primarily only used as a pass-rusher; the rotation saw Skuta play on more run downs and Lemonier come in on passing downs, primarily. The end result is that Lemonier saw 65.5 percent of his defensive snaps come in pass rush, which was the highest percentage for any 49er with more than a couple snaps a game.
Did Lemonier not play very many snaps on run defense because his skills need polishing, or do his skills need polishing because he didn’t play a lot on run defense? It’s probably a combination of both; if he had been ready as a rookie to contribute as an every-down linebacker, he would have gone before the third round.
He’s not a liability there, or in pass coverage, but if he gets playing time, it’s because he can be lethal rushing the quarterback.
See how Lemonier blows past Bradley Sowell (No. 79) on the left side, using his hands to create separation and keep Sowell from even slowing him down. Palmer didn’t have time to do anything before collapsing in a heap. Obviously, Sowell isn’t a world-class left tackle, but it’s still a good demonstration of how Lemonier can use his speed and hands to create matchup wins on the outside.
Later in that game, Lemonier forced a key fumble in the fourth quarter.
On this play, Lemonier is asked to play the run, not his forte. However, he stays disciplined. Again, Sowell can’t slow him down as Lemonier comes parallel to the line of scrimmage, closing down the cutback lane for Arizona back Alfonso Smith. When Smith does try to cut back, Lemonier is there to pound him.
What the GIF doesn’t show, and what the video does, is that Lemonier hits Smith from right to left, yet the ball comes out away from the direction of the impact. That suggests Lemonier ripped the ball loose, rather than just jarring it with a strong tackle. Rookies are often content with just making the big hit; to actually have the presence of mind to go for the strip on a play demonstrates instincts, football savvy and a big-play mentality.
I’ve got one more play selected to show Lemonier’s game in space at the moment. It came in the third quarter of the Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, with Seattle facing 1st-and-goal from the 7-yard line, holding a 5-0 lead.
You can see Lemonier on the right in sort of an edge-guarding role; it’s key for him to keep his containment, considering the dangers Marshawn Lynch poses both on cutbacks and on broken tackles.
Indeed, even though Ahmad Brooks makes a great play to grab Lynch around the ankles, we’ve all seen Lynch plow through attempted tackles on his way to the end zone.
Lemonier doesn’t overpursue. He takes a brief stutter step to make sure Lynch isn’t cutting back immediately and then flows horizontally to prevent Lynch from bouncing the ball back outside. When Brooks gets a hold of Lynch, the blocking has forced Justin Smith, Demarcus Dobbs and Glenn Dorsey too far to the left, while a single block by J.R. Sweezy ends up taking both NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis out of the play. If Lynch breaks through the low tackle by Brooks, he’s got some space in which to be dangerous.
Lemonier’s kept himself in position, however, and hasn’t overpursued. That allows him to finish the play by smashing Lynch down, keeping him to a four-yard loss.
It’s those plays made in open space that makes me really excited for Lemonier. We obviously knew he could rush the passer; that’s all he did at the college level and that’s translated well to the pros. The big issue is how Lemonier would translate into open space, and he’s learning and showing some real promise for a rookie learning a new position.
So, with a year under his belt, what’s Lemonier’s ceiling in 2014?
I think he becomes a full-time starter while Smith is out of the lineup, rather than splitting time with Dan Skuta as he did last season. He’s not going to supplant either Smith or Brooks this season, but I expect him to see more snaps in a rotational role than he did last season, even when both players return.
He’s only 22 years old, too, so he’s still got acres of potential. Looking ahead to 2015, Aldon Smith is currently scheduled to count $9.8 million against the salary cap, while Brooks is at $8.4 million, according to Spotrac. I think it’s entirely possible that Lemonier shows enough to become the full-time starter in 2015, allowing the 49ers to possibly ease their salary-cap situation a bit more.
In 2015, could we see Aldon Smith, Corey Lemonier and a third-round draft pick from, say, Atlanta? I think that’s entirely possible, and something 49ers fans should get excited about in the years to come.
I'll leave you with one last highlight reel of Lemonier's performance in 2013. As a brief warning, the highest-quality highlight reel I could find has a song with some language on it that may be unacceptable for your workplace; you'll want to either mute your sound or watch the video from a different location. It's worth it, however, to see with your own eyes the force Lemonier brings on defense.
All advanced stats, unless otherwise noted, come from Pro Football Focus.
All animated GIFs created by Bryan Knowles from NFL Game Rewind
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.