Season preview positional analysis: LBs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Monday night's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with key questions facing each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Linebackers

The 3-4 defensive scheme is all about linebackers.

So that's what the 49ers are all about now as they piece together what they hope eventually will evolve into a championship-level defense. The linebackers are the playmakers and ball-chasers in the system, which makes this position one of the most pivotal areas of the team both now and in the future.

The 49ers put heavy investment into their linebacker corps during the offseason, when they signed free agent Tully Banta-Cain to a three-year, $8.9 million deal in March to provide pass-rush heat from the edge, then used the No. 11 overall selection in the April draft on tackle machine Patrick Willis to fortify the heart of the defense.

By all indications, Banta-Cain and Willis both will help immediately. But the 49ers must also get production and consistency from the other linebackers they put on the field, and the depth the team has developed at the position promises to offer little falloff behind the front-line players.


What kind of impact can the newcomers bring?
It could be considerable. Banta-Cain, the fifth-year veteran who came into his own last year in New England with a career-high 5.5 sacks, was a sparkplug throughout the summer and one of the best defenders the 49ers put on the field. He will bring heat from the edge and both he and the team are looking for double-digit sack totals. Banta-Cain also has shown signs of being a fiery leader, which fits in nicely with this revamped defense. Willis is the real deal, showing an abundance of sideline-to-sideline talent, and the blue-chip rookie immediately showed during the summer that the 49ers just couldn't keep him off the field, winning a starting position midway through the exhibition season.

Why did Willis push Brandon Moore off the field instead of veteran Derek Smith?
Nobody was surprised to see Willis replace Smith as the starting left inside linebacker, but the stunner came when the Niners decided to shift Smith to the right and have him replace Brandon Moore, who arguably was San Francisco's defensive MVP last season. The 49ers were reluctant to push Smith – the team's leader in tackles from 2001-2005 – out of the starting lineup after seeing him return strong from an eye condition that limited his performance last year. Smith is a steady plugger in the middle who knows the system and he still offers something to the team, particularly with his veteran leadership. Moore, who led the team in both tackles and sacks last year during a breakout season, missed several tackles during the preseason and the team opted to keep Smith next to Willis to begin the season, though that could change because Moore will be a difficult player to keep out of the lineup. Moore, perhaps one of the NFL's most underrated linebackers, has the skills to flourish in the 3-4 system and will put pressure on Smith from the onset to perform are lose his starting position.

Where else will the team get help at this position?
The 49ers are looking for a breakout year from 2006 first-round pick Manny Lawson in his sophomore season. Lawson has the athleticism to be a standout strong-side linebacker in the 3-4, but the team wants to see him develop more as a pass-rushing force after his three-sack rookie season. Behind starters Banta-Cain and Lawson, the 49ers have several players competing for situational roles and roster spots, particularly Parys Haralson, who was impressive during the preseason after having his rookie season washed out by injury.

The bottom line: The 49ers can't help but be better at this position after the addition of Banta-Cain and Willis. With Smith still capable, Moore entering his prime and Lawson expected to take his game to the next level, the linebacker unit could become the strength of the team.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters to begin season: Manny Lawson (OLB), Patrick Willis (ILB), Derek Smith (ILB), Tully Banta-Cain (OLB)
Reserves: Brandon Moore (ILB), Jeff Ulbrich (ILB), Parys Haralson (OLB), Hannibal Navies (OLB/ILB)
Key new arrivals: Patrick Willis, Tully Banta-Cain
Key departures: None
Linebackers coaches: Mike Singletary, assistant head coach/defense, third year with team, fifth year of NFL experience; Jason Tarver, outside linebackers, seventh year with team, seventh year of NFL experience

Strengths: A solid nucleus inside with Derek Smith, Brandon Moore and the quickly-emerging Patrick Willis. A true edge rusher in Tully-Banta Cain and a versatile player in Manny Lawson on the strong side. Quality depth at all four positions.

Weaknesses: It still is uncertain whether Lawson and Banta-Cain can be complete players on the edge. In their transition to the 3-4, the 49ers still are in the process of converting several players from defensive ends into outside linebackers. This unit as a whole still must prove it can bring the pass rush that is necessary from this position to make the 3-4 scheme work.

Fact check: Brandon Moore, who led all San Francisco linebackers in sacks with five in 2005 and a team-leading 6.5 last year, finished fourth last season in sacks among all NFC linebackers.

Vital stat I: 114: Total tackles in 2006 by Brandon Moore, who ended Derek Smith's five-year reign as the team's leading tackler.

Vital stat II: 14: Total combined sacks by San Francisco linebackers in 2006, 49 percent of the team's total of 28.5 sacks.


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