49ers positional analysis: Outside linebacker
Here's the current breakdown of the 49ers at the position:
Starters at beginning of 2010 season: SAM (left side) Manny Lawson, WILL (right side) Parys Haralson
Starters at finish of 2010 season: SAM Manny Lawson, WILL Parys Haralson
2010 positional grade: C-plus
Outside linebackers currently on roster: Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks, Thaddeus Gibson, Aldon Smith (first-round draft pick, will transition to OLB after playing DE in college)
Pending free agents: Manny Lawson (likely unrestricted; possibility of restricted), Travis LaBoy (unrestricted)
Need to upgrade position before season: Moderate
The 49ers need their regular starters at the outside linebacker positions to bring the heat on passing downs. That is the most vital requirement of the role in a 3-4 defense, particularly the 3-4 scheme the Niners will play this year under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
But in 2010, two reserves at the position finished the season with more sacks than the two starters, Lawson and Haralson.
That suggests veterans Ahmad Brooks and Travis LaBoy, who each had five sacks, produced reasonably well in their situational roles in the regular rotation at OLB.
But it also suggests that Lawson and Haralson didn't quite get the job done regularly on passing downs, where by definition they were needed the most. Lawson and Haralson combined for 31 starts – Lawson starting all 16 games for the second consecutive season – but at the end of the season, they had only a 6.5 combined sacks.
The 49ers need more than that from their front-line players. They need numbers closer to – or surpassing – the career-high eight sacks Haralson produced in 2008 and the career-high 6.5 sacks Lawson had in 2009.
That is why San Francisco is likely to let Lawson walk in free agency, where he is sure to get attractive offers from other teams because of his all-around skills and reasonable production in most areas. There are still scenarios where Lawson returns to the team, where he'd be welcomed because he's still San Francisco's best outside linebacker, but the odds are better that he will depart.
After signing a five-year, $15 million deal with the 49ers in 2009, Haralson will earn $1.85 million in base salary this season. That's a bargain for a proven veteran starter, but there are concerns that Haralson has plateaued after his breakout 2008 campaign.
Haralson's sack production dipped for the second consecutive season in 2010, when he didn't record a sack in the final seven games, and he experienced some struggles stopping the run, an anomaly on a unit that finished sixth in the NFL in rushing defense. He also was ineffective in pass coverage.
Haralson finished eighth on the team with 69 tackles while Lawson was ninth with 64 tackles, both players dipping below their career-high totals of 2009.
Each player flashed impact force at various points of the season, particularly Lawson, but neither created the kind of consistent havoc the 49ers need and would like to see from their edge playmakers.
Part of the reason may have been that each had to share snaps with Brooks and LaBoy. One of that pair often could be found on the field on passing downs, and each got notable chunks of playing time over the course of the season. Haralson led all San Francisco OLBs with 694 snaps played and Lawson had 641, but Brooks was on the field for 484 snaps and LaBoy for 329.
Brooks returns for a contract season this year and could be given a shot at an even more extensive role, particularly if Lawson bolts in free agency.
If Lawson somehow ends up a restricted free agent under a new CBA – the 49ers already have tendered him under that classification – the Niners will gladly retain him at a bargain price. But they won't get into a bidding war for his services, because San Francisco invested the No. 7 overall pick of the 2011 draft in University of Missouri product Aldon Smith.
Smith is the unknown this season in the OLB equation. Bursting with talent, he could develop into the feared edge pass rusher that has been missing from the San Francisco defense. But nobody should count on that happening this year.
The 49ers would like to get Smith on the field as quickly as possible, but like all rookies, his growth has been stunted by the NFL lockout. Smith is just 21 and is making a conversion from defensive end, the position he played at Missouri, so he'll face a learning curve and the Niners must plan accordingly.
Haralson will be given every opportunity to stay on the field and revive his career, Brooks and Smith will be in the thick of the mix, and the Niners also will take a long look at Thaddeus Gibson, a 2010 fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers who joined the 49ers near midseason last year and saw action in their final two games.
Without Lawson, that leaves a need for one more dependable veteran at the position, and the 49ers must decide if they want to pursue a new deal with LaBoy or look elsewhere on the open market once free agency begins.
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