With Ahmad Brooks out for gosh-knows-how-long with a lacerated kidney, and with no clear-cut backups to starting outside linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson, it would seem that veteran Travis LaBoy has a pretty good shot of making the 49ers’ 53-man roster.
So why does LaBoy sound so resigned?
Thursday I asked the Larkspur native how he saw himself fitting into the 49ers’ plans on defense, and this was his reply: “Honestly, to me, it don’t really matter. I’m gonna do the best I can for the time they give me. Whether they keep me or not in the end, I really don’t worry about that. I think the organization’s got a lot of good players, so it is competition. But for me, I ain’t worried too much about being here vs. being somewhere else. I just want to play, you know?”
That sounds a lot like a player who assumes he’ll be cut, which isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from a linebacker with 23½ sacks over five NFL seasons.
ESPN’s Mike Sando recently analyzed the 49ers’ season-opening rosters over the past seven seasons, and found that the team has opened with, on average, 7.4 linebackers. So figure maybe seven, maybe eight will stick in 2010.
OK, count with me: Lawson, Haralson, Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes are the putative starters. Matt Wilhelm and rookie NaVorro Bowman back up inside, and figure to see time on the field. They seem like the only locks to me. Brooks would be if it weren’t for the internal injury. If he is recovering well, count him as No. 7.
Will the 49ers go with eight this season? If so, second-year player Diyral Briggs may have the inside track. He’s had a good training camp, and the coaches seem to like him.
But LaBoy would appear to have at least a shot. He immediately worked with the second team after coming back Tuesday. And if the Niners suffer another injury at the position, his odds will increase that much.
Of course, LaBoy is the one with the history of injuries. He sat out the entire 2009 season after undergoing surgery to repair tendons in his left foot, an injury from which he was still recovering over the recent offseason. More ominous, LaBoy missed games with concussions in 2004 (as a rookie with Tennessee) and 2006, and suffered another this summer.
He tried to practice through the pain for a couple days in Santa Clara, but finally approached trainers at the 49ers’ practice at Cal State Monterey Bay on Aug. 5 and bowed out of action. He missed 12 days of practice, and still hasn’t faced contact – though defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said today that LaBoy should play against Minnesota on Sunday.
“It’s kind of good to see they’re taking care of me, where maybe other organizations would’ve just thrown you back out,” LaBoy said on Thursday. “It’s a refreshing thing to be part of a team that takes care of its players like this. For me, I understand the process and it was a little bit frustrating. But at the same time, it’s all for a reason and you don’t want to go against what’s probably the right thing to do in the first place.”
In fact, LaBoy is convinced the time off actually helped him absorb Manusky’s defense, because he was able to focus on Lawson and Haralson and how they operate in the system.
“I wasn’t just watching practice,” LaBoy said. “I had the play scripts and I was doing my mental reps, and stuff like that, and I’d see how they play certain things vs. me being out there. So I think it really helped me learn the defense better. As far as the repetition, I’ve been in this league seven years. Ain’t a whole lot I ain’t seen to this point.”
Or another way to look at it: “You only see so many pulling guards and T-G blocks in your life until you figure it out, you know?”
LaBoy could be at a professional crossroads. Known for his speed rush, he hasn’t posted a sack since Oct. 5, 2008, when he had two for Arizona in a game against the Bills. Beyond those, his most recent sacks came at Candlestick Park, where he got J.T. O’Sullivan twice in the 2008 season opener.
LaBoy would love to overcome his recent injuries – and the challenge from young players like Briggs – and make that sort of impact at Candlestick again.