Lack of 'backer experience leaves defense a ?

A 3-4 scheme is designed to take advantage of a strong linebacking corps. While the 49ers have plenty of young talent at the position, they also lost two key components, leaving the defense a major question mark entering training camp.

Although their performances last season were disappointing, the 49ers will have to find a way to replace the sack potential they lost with the free-agent departures of outside linebacker Julian Peterson and end/linebacker Andre Carter. The pair of veterans – the team's top draft picks in 2000 and 2001, respectively – both bolted from the team during the offseason for big-money deals elsewhere.

The 49ers moved up to collect two first-round draft picks this spring, and the team then grabbled outside linebacker Manny Lawson with the No. 22 overall selection. The club is hoping Lawson can record at least 7.5 sacks, which is the number for which Carter and Peterson combined last season.

Lawson was a defensive end at North Carolina State, where he recorded 10.5 sacks as a senior. Lawson is a tremendous athlete who has a 39½-inch vertical leap and was a member of the school's track team, competing in the hurdles, long jump, triple jump and 400-meter relay team. The team hopes he can fit in as a freelancing playmaker from multiple positions on the field, a role that never seemed to fit the athletic Peterson last season.

The 49ers need to find some young players who can rush the passer after the loss of Carter and Peterson, the team's best edge rushers in recent seasons.

Fifth-round pick Parys Haralson has a chance to be a contributor at the strong-side outside linebacker position, but he is considered a bit too raw to be written in as a starter heading into training camp. Brandon Moore, who is probably better-suited to playing inside linebacker, is slated to start on the outside, but there will be plenty of competition for that position.

Ideally, the 49ers would rather have Moore as their top reserve at both middle linebacker positions while also having him prepared for duty on the outside if all other options fail. Veteran Corey Smith also will be in the mix on the outside, but he still must prove he can make the transition from defensive end on an every-down basis.

The 49ers also brought in veteran free agent T.J. Slaughter during the offseason and re-signed young depth players Jim Maxwell and Renauld Williams, but neither is expected to be in the mix for starting positions or heavy duty in the linebacker rotation.

Former Virginia star linebacker Ahmad Brooks has gained plenty of attention over the past month from the 49ers, who have spent a lot of time looking at and evaluating this year's supplemental draft class, of which Brooks is the top prize.

But it is highly unlikely the 49ers are willing to spend a high draft pick to obtain Brooks, who is seen as a character risk. Nonetheless, Brooks still is expected to demand a high price in next week's draft. Some say it could take a first-rounder to obtain Brooks, and if that's the case, the 49ers won't be involved in the bidding. If it offers anything at all, San Francisco is unlikely to go higher than a third-round pick, and even that might be stretching the 49ers' interest.

The only other expected defensive starter the 49ers added in the offseason is cornerback Walt Harris, a 10-year veteran who signed with the club as a free agent. Harris, who displayed fresh legs during spring workouts, is expected to start at left cornerback ahead of Mike Rumph and Sammy Davis.

The 49ers added Chad Williams to compete for a job with Mike Adams, who started nine games last season at free safety. Coach Mike Nolan knows Williams well from their Ravens days together. Nolan refers to Williams as "Pound for Pound," saying he was the team's best player for his size.


Niners Digest Top Stories