Top to bottom there might not be a more talent-laden group of linebackers in the NFL than the one employed by the San Francisco 49ers. But it’s likely to be without two former All-Pros at the start of 2014. Knowing that, the front office did what it could to add depth to the position this offseason. Let’s break it down.
Linebackers on the 90-man roster
Borland (draft, third round)
Lynch (draft, fifth round)
Costanzo (free agent)
Skov (undrafted free agent)
Once again one of the league’s premier linebacking corps helped the 49ers defense become the league’s third-ranked scoring unit allowing 17.1 points per game - a two-point improvement from the team that reached the Super Bowl the previous season.
NaVorro Bowman led the way with a defensive player of the year-caliber season, even though the award wound up going to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. Bowman was Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked inside linebacker by a considerable margin with a 23.9 overall grade - a rating 5.2 higher than Detroit’s second-ranked Stephen Tulloch and 12.8 ahead of Kuechly, who finished eighth among inside linebackers.
Of course PFF grades don’t mean everything and it’s difficult to quantify linebackers’ performance outside of tackles and turnovers given the multitude of variables around them. But an argument can be made that no inside linebacker was more valuable than Bowman when considering some of the circumstances he was put in during the 2013 season.
Add in the fact that Bowman registered seven sacks and 130 tackles to Kuechly’s two and 123 (according to PFF’s charts), it remains tough to see why Kuechly won the award. Perhaps the “signature moment”-edge went to Kuechly after he had one of his best performances of the season in San Francisco when the Panthers shook up Bowman’s 49ers in Week 10’s 10-9 win. That game had special significance for Carolina as it put them on the map as contenders in the NFC.
Bowman’s signature moment wasn’t bad either. He sealed the 34-24 win over the Falcons with a 89-yard interception return for a touchdown - the last end zone jaunt of Candlestick Park’s fabled history.
Running mate Patrick Willis suffered a broken hand early in training camp that sidelined him for the entire preseason. Then Willis sustained a groin injury in Week 3 against the Colts that kept him out the following Thursday night against the Rams when he was replaced by Michael Wilhoite. It was in that game that Bowman authored a special performance that included two sacks while San Francisco held St. Louis to 18 yards rushing on 19 attempts. And the Rams finished with 11 consecutive drives lasting four plays or less to end the game.
After the Rams game Willis went on to miss Week 5’s win over Houston, which allowed Wilhoite to have a breakout game on national TV. The former undrafted safety out of Washburn registered 11 tackles in Willis’ stead while the 49ers went on to rough up the Texans 34-3.
The most adverse situation came via Aldon Smith, who crashed his car into a neighbor's yard and was arrested for alleged DUI charges just two days before the team was slated to take on the Colts in Week 3. Smith returned to the practice field later that morning and went on to play all 72 snaps in the loss. It was clear he wasn’t quite himself. After the game it was announced Smith would take a leave of absence from the team in order to attend a drug and alcohol treatment center. His leave ended up being five weeks and the 49ers went 5-0 while he was gone.
None of the teams the 49ers played during those five games wound up making the playoffs. But it allowed reserves Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier to get valuable experience. Skuta was used in base situations while Lemonier - a traditional defensive end the prior season at Auburn - worked in nickel packages.
San Francisco wasn’t going to replace Smith’s production with two backups, but they were able to find a combination that allowed for minimal drop off in Smith’s absence. And with Skuta and Lemonier splitting that volume of snaps last year, they will be better equipped to handle Smith’s expected suspension to start 2014.
Perhaps the most unheralded player among the 49ers linebackers is Ahmad Brooks, who notched 14 sacks while appearing in all 19 of the team’s games including the postseason. He had three sacks in the Divisional Round in Carolina (per PFF) - including perhaps the most important play of the game when he stuffed Cam Newton's sneak at the goal line. Brooks also had three hits on Russell Wilson in the conference title game.
Brooks became a household name for about a week after his hit on Drew Brees became one of the most controversial plays of the season following the loss in Week 11. Had Brooks’ fourth-quarter strip-sack been ruled clean, San Francisco likely would have escaped New Orleans with a win. And had the 49ers finished one win better in the regular season, they would have won the division, received a bye had a chance to host the NFC Championship game instead of going to Seattle.
Story lines to watch
BACKING UP BOWMAN: Bowman’s gruesome knee injury coming in the season’s final game in Seattle will likely force him to miss at least the first six games of the season. With his spot alongside Willis open, there will be an intriguing camp battle at inside linebacker between rookie third-round pick Chris Borland and Wilhoite. The duo couldn’t come into the situation with more different backgrounds. Wilhoite - a former safety that went undrafted out of Washburn - and Borland - an All-American at FBS powerhouse Wisconsin. Wilhoite will have the edge early on given his familiarity with the system, but don’t be surprised if Borland leapfrogs him at some point later in the preseason. Borland had a very good offseason program and impressed his coaches with his instincts despite lacking the ideal measurables. The 49ers wouldn’t have taken Borland in the third round if they didn’t believe he could fill in for Bowman or Willis at some point down the road.
LEMONIER’S TIME TO SHINE: With Smith likely to get a multi-game suspension to start the regular season, Lemonier will have an opportunity to take some big steps in his development. He showed signs of potential in his limited role as a pass rusher in 2013 and could be in line for more work in base situations - much like Smith was in his second year in the league. Should Lemonier prove worthy of more playing time, it could allow coordinator Vic Fangio to a little more creative with his pass rushing schemes. Since Fangio took over in 2011, the 49ers have rarely taken defensive linemen off the field in obvious pass-rushing situations. But with Lemonier being worthy of more snaps, perhaps a “nascar” package like the one used by the Giants during their Super Bowl runs featuring three or more outside linebackers/defensive ends would be given a try. With more speed and athleticism on the field, mobile quarterbacks like one in Seattle might have a harder time making plays with their legs.
BATTLE AT THE BACK END: The 49ers love having depth all over the roster, and is nowhere that more apparent than at linebacker. Outside of the top six guys already mentioned, the rest of the depth chart is wide open with intriguing players that will have to prove their worth on special teams to stick around - particularly Blake Costanzo and Nick Moody. On the outside, Aaron Lynch offers some real upside. But it remains to be seen if he can recapture the drive he had at Notre Dame during his freshmen season, or if he’s the player that fell off draft boards completely while at South Florida. Then there’s Dan Skuta, who was a productive piece last season, but will still have to earn his stripes to stick around in 2014.
LOCKS: Smith, Willis, Bowman, Brooks, Borland, Lemonier. The first three are obvious and the third-round draft statuses of Borland and Lemonier mean they are likely to make the roster. But one spot will open up if Bowman starts the season the PUP list.
(Side note: Bowman was added to the active/PUP list Wednesday but it doesn’t guarantee he stays there for the start of the regular season, although it’s likely)
NOTHING’S ASSURED BUT LOOKING GOOD: Wilhoite, Skuta. Wilhoite knows the defense and can play special teams. His spot on the roster appears safe although hungry players like Costanzo and Moody are right on his heels. Skuta was the 49ers’ third outside linebacker in 2013 and will likely hold that role again, but good camps from Lemonier and Lynch could make it tough on him.
ON THE BUBBLE: Costanzo, Moody, Lynch, Skov, Thomas. Costanzo and Moody look like they are battling to be first in line should Bowman start the season on an injured list as many expect. Both are core special teamers that could be valuable reserves. The real wild card is Lynch, who likely wouldn’t pass through waivers to make it to the practice squad given all his physical upside. And to be sure, the last thing the 49ers want to see is Lynch in a Seahawks uniform sacking Colin Kaepernick in 2016. Overall, these reserve linebacker roles are as up for grabs as any positions on the roster. Skov would likely make two thirds of the rosters throughout the league, but he seems like a long shot to crack the numbers game in San Francisco. Thomas is hoping a good camp can land him on a 53-man roster somewhere - although he’s more likely headed to another practice squad after entering the league as an undrafted free agent last year with the Saints.
Training Camp Spotlights:
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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