Season in review: Linebackers

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2006 season by position, analyzing what went right and wrong during the year and identifying the changes that took place and the players who stood out during the course of the season. Who's the unit MVP, the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise? Who overachieved and underachieved? Who's on the rise and on the slide? It's all here. Today: Linebackers

Linebackers on final 53-man roster: Manny Lawson, Derek Smith, Brandon Moore, Jeff Ulbrich, Hannibal Navies, Renauld Williams

Starters in season opener: LILB Derek Smith, RILB Jeff Ulbrich, ROLB Manny Lawson

Starters in season finale: LLB Manny Lawson, MLB Jeff Ulbrich, RLB Brandon Moore

Unit MVP: Brandon Moore

Top newcomer: Manny Lawson

Most improved: Brandon Moore

Biggest disappointment: Derek Smith

Biggest surprise: Brandon Moore

On the rise: Brandon Moore, Manny Lawson

On the slide: Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich

Overachiever: Brandon Moore

Underachiever: None

What went right: Moore emerged during the second half of the season as an impact playmaker and finished the season as the team leader with a career-high 114 tackles and career-high 6.5 sacks. He was a tremendous player once the 49ers found a spot for him as a regular starter at right inside linebacker in their 4-3 defense and learned how best to utilize his skills as a blitzer and third-down pass rusher. After entering the regular starting lineup in Week 9, Moore had a series of monster performances, including a 15-tackle game against Minnesota in which he had one sack, three quarterback pressures, two tackles for loss and also forced two fumbles. Moore was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort in that game, which arguably was the best individual performance by a San Francisco defender in 2006. Moore would go on to record seven or more tackles in each of San Francisco's final nine games and 10 or more in five of them. Lawson, though he did not become the immediate edge pass-rushing threat that the team anticipated, had a solid all-around season in which he developed nicely as a versatile, all-around linebacker after making the transition from college defensive end. He displayed flashes of athleticism while recording 65 tackles, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, three passes defensed and one interception. Smith started strong and had a season-high 15 tackles in Week 4, and he continued to play on through injuries and an eye condition that limited his vision. He had four games with nine tackles or more. Ulbrich offered some steady play at times and remained a contributor even after Moore took his starting job. The 49ers got an occasional lift from veteran T.J. Slaughter before his season ended on injured reserve and veteran Navies made an immediate contribution - including three starts - after joining the team at the end of November.

What went wrong: The 49ers wanted this to be the season they would become a true 3-4 team, but that didn't happen because they lacked the personnel, and it took the team too long to realize that Moore needed to be on the field on a regular basis in a 4-3 set. While Lawson displayed a lot of promise as an athletic playmaker, he was not the kind of impact force the team would have liked from the No. 22 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Smith and Ulbrich both had down seasons after the team made them inside fixtures during the previous year with contract extensions. Ulbrich signed a four-year extension worth $8.955 million at the end of the 2005 season, but then struggled to get off blocks and make plays while producing his worst season since becoming a regular starter in 2001. Smith, after signing a three-year, $14 million deal before he could hit free agency in 2006, saw his five-year reign as the team's leading tackler come to an end as he finished with a career-low 93 tackles. He also saw his string of 126 tackles or more in nine consecutive seasons since joining the NFL come to a finish. Smith developed a muscle strain in his left eye that limited his vision, and he played with the condition the remainder of the season, and it appeared to affect him when he took bad angles on plays. Smith also developed a leg injury that kept him out of three of the team's final four games. His 12 starts were a career low. Smith, Ulbrich and Slaughter each struggled at times when they were asked to perform roles in pass coverage. The team ended the season with four linebackers - Slaughter, Andre Torrey, Jay Foreman and rookie fifth-round draft pick Parys Haralson - on injured reserve. Haralson was challenging for a starting position at outside linebacker during the summer before a foot injury ruined his preseason and a torn pectoral muscle required surgery and put him on injured reserve in November just when he was starting to make his presence felt.

Looking forward in 2007: The 49ers intend to become a legitimate 3-4 team without fail in 2007, and that will mean adding at least a few more linebackers through free agency and/or the draft. The team is set at one inside position with Moore and one outside position with Lawson, but would like to upgrade at the other two spots. The 49ers ran mostly a 4-3 with Smith in the middle in 2006, but his declining play and increasing age - he turned 32 last Thursday - must make the team seriously consider upgrading at his position. Smith and Ulbrich would make quality veteran backups if the team can find better players to replace them as starters - which San Francisco already has done with Ulbrich. Both veterans can play the same inside position, so the 49ers can get by with either in the middle, and it's still possible each can rebound to perform at their standards of previous years as a starter. The 49ers will look to be a player in free agency for an impact linebacker such as Adalius Thomas (Ravens) and Lance Briggs (Bears), who both will command top money if their respective teams allow them to become unrestricted free agents. With an expected eight selections in the first four rounds of the April draft, the 49ers will use at least one of those picks - and perhaps more - to add prospects at this position, which figures to get a definite facelift in 2007.

Final 2006 unit grade: C-plus


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