Brooks would be happy with a mere 17 sacks

Who was the most surprising 49er last season? Think a minute. Vernon Davis and Dashon Goldson certainly turned important corners, but both had been recognized as having the talent. Michael Crabtree may have exceeded expectations considering how late he got into the game. Aubrayo Franklin?

It’s hard to believe any of them raised more eyebrows that outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. He had an OK rookie year in Cincinnati in 2006, then tore his groin and missed 14 games the next season. The Bengals waived him in 2008. He didn’t play a snap while with the 49ers that year. Last season, he was sack-less by the Week 6 bye. But he became a key pass-rush specialist over the second half of the season and finished with six sacks, including three against the Cardinals in Week 14.

Did he surprise some people in the building?

“I think so,” Brooks told me today. “I was a high talent coming out of college. I guess the first couple years in the NFL I didn’t really prove myself to be one of those elite guys. But I think I opened up some eyes last year. And from how I’m working now and everything I’ve done from March until now, I think they have more confidence in me going out there and making something happen.”

And yes, Brooks has plenty of confidence in himself. Enough to talk sack numbers.

“Yeah, there’s always a personal goal,” he said. “I want to be the sack leader. That’s just me. I tell myself I’m gonna get 20. I might not, you know what I mean? But I might end up with like 17 or something, but I always shoot my goals high.”

You can bet the 49ers would be thrilled with 17 sacks, which falls just below the official team record of 17½ set by Fred Dean in 1983, and the unofficial record of 18 by Cedrick Hardman in 1971.

Brooks said 2009 was a new experience for him because he had never spent so much time rushing the passer. Apparently, he’s pretty good at it, and he notes that his pass-rushing technique has improved along the way. That’s part of what seems to be his general maturation as a player.

“Yeah. I study a lot more. I always watch film,” Brooks said. “I think I’m a lot more serious about my conditioning. I’m eating right, I’m going to bed early, I’m one of the first guys here sometimes. I’m just a lot more serious about my nutrition right now.”

Brooks has one more thing in his favor. Manny Lawson is skipping all voluntary workouts, giving other outside linebackers here precious opportunities. Players are usually loathe to comment on their comrades’ business decisions, but Brooks admitted that Lawson’s absence could be shifting the balance of power in San Francisco.

“Right now they have Manny and Parys (Haralson) considered as No. 1, and I’m considered as No. 2,” he said. “But by Manny not being here, that gives me more repetitions out there to run with the ones.”

Make no mistake. Brooks’ emergence in 2009 is one of the factors limiting Lawson’s leverage in 2010.