Rookies getting aggressive making shift to LB

Manny Lawson & Parys Haralson are making an aggressive summer charge for the starting edge positions in the 49ers' 3-4 defense, just like they charged after QBs with reckless ferocity as two of the top pass rushers in college football. Both are speed freaks who possess ideal makeup for the position, but the hard part's learning pass coverage after spending their college careers as defensive ends.

But once they get that down, watch out.

"It's a big transition, but it's a good transition," said Haralson, who gives increasing flashes of his athletic ability every day in 49ers training camp. "I think I can be a dominant outside linebacker in the NFL."

But that's the rub for both rookies. After dominating in college, they are being transformed to a position neither has played since they were teenagers.

Lawson, selected by San Francisco with the No. 22 overall pick in the first round of the NFL draft this spring, and Haralson, selected in the fifth round, both have to learn the other nuances of playing linebacker in the NFL - and that includes pass coverage and playing in space.

But both are practically frothing at the facemask because of the possibilities presented by their new places in San Francisco's defensive system, where the outside linebackers will get their opportunities to be the team's top pass rushers.

"That role is a play-making role," Lawson said. "I like to look at it as it's my spot, so I have to make plays out of that role. It's coming along for me. I get to use my speed and get to places. There's guys out there that are faster than me, but not much. As long as I get in the sight of the quarterback and the intended receiver, I'm good to go."

Lawson has been going good as training camp stretches into his its second week, and Haralson also has been making strides since camp practices began July 28. Lawson looks every bit like San Francisco's quickest defender - even faster than the team's defensive backs - but Haralson also is attracting attention as he learns the system and gets more time in it.

To be sure, the team is counting on them to make an impact on a unit that ranked dead last in the NFL in total defense and 31st in sacks per play last season. Particularly Lawson, who was planted in the starting lineup at the team's first spring minicamp practice and has remained there since.

"The two rookies are both doing a good job," coach Mike Nolan said. "What I like is, right now, they are becoming more aggressive. Whether they are right or wrong, they are becoming more aggressive at the position, and that is critical. Because if you're going to be wrong, go 100 miles per hour."

Lawson and Haralson both are proficient at revving up the speed, but that's not the only thing the 49ers like about them at the position. The importance of pass-rushing skills comes first for an edge linebacker in the 3-4, but the Niners went after both players in the draft because of the natural skills and potential they bring to the position.

The only thing that's missing is time and experience. Both players will continue to get a crash course leading up to San Francisco's preseason opener Aug. 11.

"That's what we keep doing all day long, we're teaching them (both) everything," outside linebackers coach Jason Tarver said. "Both of those guys are making good strides. They're getting a lot of reps and they're on the right track. They're getting it right.

"They already have the body size, the leg strength, the ability to stay low and break and run sideways. They have that as a pass rusher as long as they keep their body down. They just have to learn how to move in space a little more. But their strength - both those guys naturally have that. They just have to learn what they're doing on each play. But the No. 1 thing for an outside linebacker is getting to the quarterback, and those guys are doing that."

Nobody has to teach Lawson or Haralson those skills.

They were two of the top pass-rushing defensive ends in college football last season, when Lawson ranked 12th in the nation with 10.5 sacks at North Carolina State and Haralson led the University of Tennessee with 8.5 sacks. Lawson finished his college career fourth in school history with 20.5 sacks. Haralson finished his career fifth in school history with 21 sacks and second with 44 quarterback pressures.

Now they're looking to create the same kind of havoc at the NFL level with the 49ers, and they mean to do it sooner rather than later.

"It's foreign, but it's not that foreign. It's not like trying to speak Spanish," Haralson said. "I've always been able to rush the passer - I've been doing it all my lie. Now it's just learning pass coverage. It's coming slowly but surely and each and every day I'm getting better at it. Everything's making more sense every day and I'm getting more comfortable with it, learning the defense and understanding why things do happen."

Lawson said virtually the same thing. And, like Lawson, Haralson said that - while training camp is for absorbing the system - he doesn't plan on his rookie season being a learning year.

"Nah, I plan on coming to play," he said. "I'm learning all this now because I want to play. That's what I'm about."

Niners Digest Top Stories