Breaking Down 49ers' LB Aaron Lynch's Preseason Campaign

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Breaking Down 49ers' LB Aaron Lynch's Preseason Campaign
Uncredited/Associated Press
49ers linebacker Aaron Lynch made a name for himself during the 2014 preseason.

The San Francisco 49ers' rookie outside linebacker Aaron Lynch has certainly made a name for himself this preseason.

The 6'5", 249-pound Lynch was drafted by San Francisco in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft. Lynch's collegiate career spanned two schools—Notre Dame and South Florida.

His statistics in college easily suggest his talents. In his 2011 and 2013 campaigns combined—he sat out the 2012 season because of his transfer from Notre Dame to USF—Lynch totaled 62 tackles, 18.5 of which were for a loss, as well as 10.5 sacks. His pass-rushing prowess made him an attractive option on draft day.

Aaron Lynch's Collegiate Statistics
School Total Tackles Tackles for Loss Sacks Passes Defended
2011 Notre Dame 33 7.0 5.5 2
2013 South Florida 29 11.5 5.0 1

sports-reference.com

But Lynch also came with a reputation.

His transfer from Notre Dame to South Florida aside, Lynch's work ethic, passion and commitment to the team have all been questioned.

Josh Alper of NBC Sports went into further detail following the draft:

When the 49ers picked South Florida linebacker/defensive end Aaron Lynch in the fifth round last Saturday, coach Jim Harbaugh called Lynch a player in need of “direction” after a collegiate career that started at Notre Dame and ended with Lynch being characterized as a player who went through the motions of football without the requisite passion.

San Francisco's drafting of Lynch also drew scrutiny. South Florida strength and conditioning coach Hans Straub voiced his discontent with the pick via twitter, as described by Alper, questioning the 49ers' value on integrity and character.

The tweet has since been deleted, and Straub resigned after being placed on indefinite leave by South Florida.

Regardless of the reputation, the 49ers felt comfortable enough with Lynch. A strong locker room and supportive coaching staff could prove to be the difference.

 

USA TODAY Sports
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (right) has spent plenty of time working with Lynch (left) to build up his strength.

OTAs through Training Camp

Lynch was one of several rookies who drew praise from head coach Jim Harbaugh during the 49ers' initial preseason workouts and organized team activites (OTAs).

When asked if Lynch was comparable to All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith, Harbaugh replied via Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com:

They look similar when they stand next to each other, but we don’t put those type of expectations on a young player. He’s learning his role, learning the system and making mistakes and correcting them. But he’s been doing a real good job. Very pleased with the way he’s studied, the way he’s practiced, and how he’s coming along, yeah.

Here's a bit of a comparison between Smith and Lynch—provided by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.

Aaron Lynch/Aldon Smith Comparison
Height Weight Arm Length Hand Drafted
Aaron Lynch 6'5" 276 34 10 1/4 Round 5 / No. 150 overall
Aldon Smith 6'4" 265 35 3/8 9 3/4 Round 1 / No. 7 overall

Sacramento Bee

Lynch suffered a bit of a setback when he strained his hamstring on June 10 per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. This landed him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list at the start of training camp, but Lynch was able to get back to practice on Aug. 3.

More importantly, Lynch's reputation appears to have been left behind, and the young linebacker continued to prove his worth throughout the duration of camp.

 

Mathew Sumner/Associated Press
Lynch made a stellar case to be added to the 53-man roster with his final two preseason games.

The Preseason

Lynch's hamstring limited him to just nine special teams snaps during the 49ers' first preseason game versus the Baltimore Ravens.

But Lynch saw plenty of action against the Denver Broncos in San Francisco's second exhibition game, totaling 38 snaps, second only to Corey Lemonier (43 snaps) at the outside linebacker position. He netted two tackles, one of which went for a loss, during the 34-0 loss.

We saw some glimpses of talent against Denver, but Lynch truly turned it up against the San Diego Chargers in the team's third preseason game.

Lynch was all over the field during his 32 snaps on defense. He and fellow rookie linebacker Chris Borland certainly made their presence felt in San Francisco's 21-7 victory over San Diego.

During the game, Lynch totaled three tackles and one sack. Additionally, he batted two passes—one of which was intercepted this year's first-round pick Jimmie Ward.

But let's break down this key play a bit further.

By evaluating the photo above, we can see Lynch lining up at the left-outside linebacker position. He'll move against the San Diego right tackle, gaining excellent position to put his hand up in the passing lane.

49ers.com social media feed.
Lynch is viewed on the left side on this 3rd-and-short play.

As the quarterback begins his motion, Lynch is seen raising his arm to disrupt the pass. He does so successfully.

49ers.com social media feed.
Lynch pressures San Diego's right tackle, which puts him in a position to defend the passing lane. He raises his arm and deflects the pass in the process.

The result—after a second deflection in the secondary—is Ward's interception.

49ers.com social media feed.
Safety Jimmie Ward hauls in the interception after another deflection.

Lynch certainly forced himself into the discussion as to whether or not he should be added to the 49ers' 53-man roster after this game, but he followed up the performance against San Diego with another strong showing against the Houston Texans in San Francisco's final preseason game.

Lynch was on the field for 38 snaps versus Houston, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, totaling three tackles—one of which went for a loss—and another pass defensed.

Patric Schneider/Associated Press
Lynch added another pass defended to his preseason stats during the 49ers/Texans exhibition.

Thanks to his stellar play during the preseason, Lynch earned a spot as an outside linebacker on San Francisco's final roster.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Aldon Smith's nine-game suspension moves Lynch up the 49ers' depth chart.

Moving Forward

Having a strong preseason does not always translate into an effective regular-season campaign. 

In Lynch's case, he was often going up against second-team units. His biggest challenge will obviously come in the regular season should he square off against other teams' first-string offensive linemen.

On top of this, Lynch will not be starting in Week 1 at the outside linebacker position. These duties are now reserved for second-year pro Corey Lemonier and veteran Dan Skuta in the wake of Smith's NFL-mandated nine-game suspension.

With Lynch buried on the depth chart, the number of snaps he sees will be directly related to the health and effectiveness of both Lemonier and Skuta. Lynch may spell them from time to time, but we shouldn't expect him to get anywhere near the number of snaps he received in the final two preseason games.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Second-year pro Corey Lemonier figures to get the majority of snaps in Smith's absence.

More importantly however, Lynch needs to prove that the ghosts of his collegiate years have been put to rest.

The reputation of not giving 100 percent followed him to 49ers' camp as he was out of shape when he arrived.

SFGate.com's Eric Branch goes into further detail:

The reason for that is obvious: Lynch has yet to prove he has the tenacity to match his talent...Similarly, Fangio said Lynch needs to keep "maturing" and "become a pro," which, again, points to his work-in-progress status.

Fortunately, Lynch has recognized this potential issue and has learned by watching some of the 49ers' established veterans and their work ethic.

"In being a pro you've got to have good habits," Lynch said via Branch. "You can't go out there in practice and be lazy. That's what I've really caught onto watching the older guys: Justin SmithPatrick Willis, Aldon, Ahmad [Brooks], Ray [McDonald]. They all work hard during practice. Nobody takes a day off, really."

Continuously improving his game while retaining the tenacity of which Branch described will be paramount to Lynch's success in 2014 and beyond. The 49ers do not want their fifth-round pick to simply "disappear" on the field this season.

Here's hoping that the opposite takes place.

 

All statistics and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comSports-Reference.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.

Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.

Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

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