Every season there is a player who surprises and makes an unexpected game-changing difference for an NFL team, and the San Francisco 49ers have plenty of candidates to provide such a contribution in 2014.
Having enjoyed an extremely profitable offseason that saw them bring in 12 new rookies via the draft and make further additions through trades and free agency, the 49ers are in the envious position of possessing good depth at almost every position.
However, things have not exactly gone to plan in preseason for the 49ers, who were outscored by 57-3 in defeats to the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos before turning things around somewhat with a 21-7 triumph over the San Diego Chargers last Sunday.
But despite their apparent struggles, there have been plenty of players who have produced impressive performances in the three preseason games.
One such display came against San Diego from rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch who, with his sheer size and athletic ability, can prove the doubters wrong and be the biggest X-factor for the 49ers' defensive unit from the outside linebacker spot.
The other candidates
Before examining why Lynch is the player with the biggest potential to be San Francisco's game-changer, it is important to briefly analyze the prospects of the other under-the-radar guys who have a shot of making a sizable difference to the fortunes of this undoubted Super Bowl contender.
First- and second-round rookies Jimmie Ward and Carlos Hyde have both shown flashes of why the 49ers think of them so highly but, considering their lofty draft positions, it will not exactly be a surprise if they each deliver key showings in their rookie years.
Wide receiver Bruce Ellington is another rookie whose stock has rose with his play in preseason, making nine catches for 86 yards and averaging 29.5 yards as a kick returner, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The likes of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Steve Johnson are all set to be ahead of Ellington on the receiving depth chart, though, and—barring injuries—it is difficult to envision him having too much of an impact offensively in his maiden pro season.
Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial have displayed signs that they can reinvigorate an ageing defensive front, while Michael Wilhoite will be hoping to catch the eye as he fills in for the injured All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Yet, as his form in the victory versus the Chargers indicated, it is Lynch who—in the prospective absence of the set-to-be suspended Aldon Smith—has the best chance to establish himself as an unexpected and pivotal contributor for the 49ers.
So why will Lynch, a late-round pick with temperament concerns, become such a big factor for San Francisco?
That question is most simply answered with a look at his frightening physical abilities.
In his first and final season with South Florida, Lynch dropped 30 pounds due to a prescription for Adderall and weighed in at 249 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Lynch, with the help of the 49ers strength and conditioning coach Mark Uyeyama, now looks to have added substantially to his frame, which was apparent in the game with San Diego.
It was a supreme performance from Lynch, who dominated the Chargers backups on the offensive line to finish the game with a sack, two quarterback hurries and two deflected passes, earning a grade of 5.3 from PFF.
The sack of Brad Sorensen was Lynch's most impressive moment of the game as he overpowered San Diego tackle Michael Harris to get the Chargers quarterback despite Harris practically having his forearm around the throat of Lynch.
That play served as a perfect example of the burst and brute force Lynch possesses, but it will not have come as a surprise to the 49ers, whose head coach Jim Harbaugh has been glowing in his praise of how the 21-year-old has developed since coming to the Bay Area, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
I just like him. He's in the process of learning how to become a pro football player, and I'm proud to report he's doing a very good job … eye-popping at times. He'd be thinking small if he just settled for making the team. I think he can be a real fine football player.
Before transferring to South Florida, Lynch enjoyed a strong first season with Notre Dame, registering 5.5 sacks, according to Sports-Reference.
Lynch was never really able to build on that season with the Fighting Irish; however, if he can continue to produce as he did against San Diego, then there is little to stop him from validating Harbaugh's prediction.
Many fifth-round selections sometimes struggle to make the roster and if even if they do, their playing time normally comes on special teams.
That may not be the case for Lynch, who could well benefit from the suspension Aldon Smith appears set to receive from the league.
The 49ers—per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area—were said to be bracing themselves for a six- to eight-game ban for Smith following his various off-the-field indiscretions but, according to ESPN.com's Paul Guiterrez, have yet to hear anything from the league about his looming imposed absence.
Smith's presumed suspension will leave the 49ers without a pass-rushing specialist who recorded a league-high 19.5 sacks in 2012 and—per Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chronicle—has won plaudits from Harbaugh for taking his game to "the highest level" during training camp.
San Francisco won all five games that Smith missed after entering rehab following a DUI last year, with the play of replacements Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier helping the 49ers to cope without the former Missouri star.
Skuta and Lemonier performed admirably in 2013; however, their contributions as pass-rushers were scant.
Lemonier, in his second year out of Auburn, would appear to be the front-runner to take the majority of Smith's workload having played 63.3 percent of the Niners' defensive snaps in preseason, according to PFF, while Skuta has featured on just 26.6 percent of snaps by comparison.
With two sacks and a forced fumble to his name in preseason, Lemonier has shown distinct signs of improvement.
Still, Lemonier is far from an every-down NFL linebacker and with Smith poised to spend a portion of the season on the sidelines, the 49ers will require another edge-rusher, and that is where Lynch comes in.
A veteran locker room
Few would argue that Lynch has the talent to succeed in the pros, but what made him a risky choice for the 49ers were the concerns over his character.
The fluctuations in his weight served as clear red flags, along with apparent fears over his commitment and desire.
South Florida's strength and conditioning coach Hans Straub was among the first to criticize the 49ers for selecting Lynch, resigning from his post after tweeting that integrity and character were clearly "not a priority" for San Francisco, per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson.
It is not surprising that question marks were raised over the Niners' decision to draft Lynch, especially considering the embarrassment they have suffered due to the scandals involving Aldon Smith's personal life.
Yet perhaps what Straub and others neglected to consider is that Lynch will be part of a veteran locker room filled with great leaders such as Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Bowman.
Furthermore the presence of experienced coaches such as defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula should have a positive impact on his development, with Lynch already praising the latter following his fine display against San Diego, per the Taylor Price of the team's website.
Tomsula is amazing. Even though he's on my tail, I get a lot of real positives from him. That's the great thing about it. He's not here to baby me; he's here to make me the best that I can be. He knows how to do it, too. All these coaches know what they're doing. I'm trying to take all that I can from them.
Lynch has come to a team that has a culture of winning and a supportive locker room atmosphere and is in the ideal environment to prosper as an NFL player.
In addition Lynch will be working behind a stout defensive line that, while ageing, has proved adept at swallowing up double-teams and creating holes for pass-rushers due to the efforts of the likes of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.
Of course, it is no guarantee the 49ers will be able to set Lynch on the right track, and, although the early signs have been encouraging, he still has a long way to go if he is to make it in the pros as he transitions to the role of linebacker having predominantly served as a defensive end in college.
The test for Lynch will be whether he can have the same impact against starting offensive linemen as he did versus the Chargers' second-string group.
With Aldon Smith possibly in line for a considerable suspension, Lynch should get ample opportunity to prove that he can produce against NFL starters.
And, with his magnificent physical attributes and a talented defensive line in front of him, it is tough to bet against Lynch answering his critics and becoming an instant X-factor as a pass-rusher for the 49ers.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise stated.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.
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