Season review, part 6: linebackers

Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes had solid seasons for the 49ers, but outside backers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson failed to provide a necessary pass rush. Solution: Find a speedy, fierce linebacker in the draft.

The San Francisco 49ers have the seventh pick in the NFL draft, and they're likely to go one of two ways: draft a quarterback or draft a pass-rushing linebacker.

Both are equally important needs. The Niners didn't get productive seasons from their two outside backers, Parys Haralson or Manny Lawson, creating a need the team will clearly have to address this offseason.

The inside linebackers in the 49ers' 3-4 defense, however, were superb. Patrick Willis didn't match his 2009 season, but he again led the team in tackles (153), had a career-best six sacks and became the first 49er since Ronnie Lott to earn All-Pro in each of his first four seasons. Niners fans know they're watching a future Hall of Famer when Willis plays.

Veteran Takeo Spikes, meanwhile, proved he's not quite finished at age 34. Spikes was second on the team in tackles with 125, intercepted three passes and was active in pass coverage, showing he's still capable of running sideline to sideline. He'll be an unrestricted free agent, but Willis wants him back, indicating a willingness to give up some of his salary to accommodate his teammate.

But while Willis and Spikes generally thrived – at least until they each suffered broken hands late in the season – Haralson and Lawson did not. Lawson proved to be efficient stopping the run, but neither helped the 49ers get continual pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Haralson may have actually regressed; his sack totals have dropped from eight in 2008 to five in 2009 to four this season.

Although the Niners had just about the league average in sacks (36, compared to the average of 35.3), they showed a desperate need for a player (think Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers) who can get after the quarterback play after play.

Travis LaBoy came off the bench (and off a one-year hiatus because of an injury) to give the 49ers an occasional lift. In some ways, he might have been their most effective pass rusher, finishing with five sacks. But his season ended because of a knee-ligament injury Dec. 16 against the San Diego Chargers. He's another unrestricted free agent, and it's uncertain if the 49ers will bring him back.

Another outside linebacker, Ahmad Brooks, sustained a lacerated kidney in training camp and missed the first regular-season game. He never seemed to get into a flow, and penalties hurt him. He's probably a better player than he showed.

Simply put, the 49ers will have to get better at outside linebacker. Surrounding Willis with a fierce pass rusher is the first step.

Grade: C.


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