Position profile: Outside linebacker/defensive end

Dynamic pass-rushers are difficult to find. Look around the NFL, and you’ll discover only 14 players recorded 10 or more sacks in 2009. The last time the 49ers had a double-digit sack artist was 2002 when Andre Carter had 12.5.


But all is not lost in this area for the 49ers.


After all, Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson combined for 17.5 sacks last season. That’s 17.5 sacks among two positions because those three players were never on the field at the same time.


The 49ers actually got very good production from their pass rush. The 49ers ranked tied for third in the NFL with 44 sacks. (And that’s quite an improvement from the 30 sacks recorded in 2008.)


NFL Sack Leaders

1, Vikings 48

2, Steelers 47

3 (tied), 49ers, Dolphins, Eagles, 44 apiece


And the good news for the 49ers is all their outside linebackers/defensive ends, theoretically, are years from reaching their full potential. Haralson and Lawson are four-years veterans, and Brooks was an inside linebacker who was covered midway through the 2008 season to his new position.


Here is how the 49ers achieved their 44 sacks:


17.5: Outside linebackers (Lawson 6.5, Brooks 6, Haralson 5)

13.5: Defensive linemen (Justin Smith 6, Ray McDonald 3, Aubrayo Franklin 2, Demetric Evans 1.5, Isaac Sopoaga 1)

8: Inside linebackers (Patrick Willis 4, Takeo Spikes 4)

4: Safeties (Dashon Goldson 2, Michael Lewis 1, Mark Roman 1)

1:  Cornerbacks (Dre’ Bly 1)


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In the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme, these players are outside linebackers on first and second downs. They stand up and their duties consist of setting the edge against run plays, dropping into coverage or rushing the passer. On third downs, they move to defensive end to rush the passer.


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Currently, the 49ers have five of these hybrid outside linebacker/defensive ends on their roster. They will add another couple players via free agency and/or the draft. It’s wide open whether they invest highly in this position (with a high draft pick) or they attempt to uncover a player who has slipped through the cracks. I doubt the 49ers will spend much money to sign a free agent, but they could add a minimum-salary-type player, such as they did a year ago with Marques Harris. One of the reasons I don’t think they would be interested in signing a big name veteran guy (Julius Peppers or Joey Porter) is because that would take away from the development of the younger guys, and those are the players who figure into the short-term and long-term plans of the organization.


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ParysHaralsn.jpgParys Haralson:
After he recorded a team-leading eight sacks in 2008, the 49ers were understandably excited about Haralson’s future. The club signed him to a four-year, $15 million extension that included $6.5 million in guaranteed money last offseason. But while his sack numbers slipped a bit, there is no less optimism about Haralson’s future among those in the 49ers’ organization. Haralson is an every-down player for the 49ers. He started all 16 games, and remains on the field for pass-rush situations, too. While he recorded just five sacks to rank fourth on the team, he was second on the team behind Justin Smith with 78 pressures and 52 hits on the quarterback. Signed through 2013.


Manny Lawson: The 49ers made a commitment to Lawson as a pass-rusher last offseason. They did not add a veteran for that role. And they preferred other options aside from adding a pass-rusher through the draft. Lawson was drafted at No. 22 in the 2006 draft because of his pass-rush skills. But once he got to the 49ers, he were less impressed with that area of his game than his ability to play the run and cover from the outside linebacker spot on first and second downs. Lawson was not a disaster as a pass rusher last season – his first in that role. But he also did not consistently get to the quarterback. That prompted a switch after 10 games in which Lawson was replaced in pass-rush situations. Then, something interesting happened. After Lawson’s role was diminished, his pass-rush production increased. Lawson led the team with 6.5 sacks, and three of them came in the final six games after he had been “demoted.” I think Lawson is a valuable player on first and second downs, and he should get better in all areas. But the 49ers have a dilemma. He is signed through 2010, and the difficult part for both parties is to arrive at a fair price for both parties because of his ever-changing roles.


Ahmad Brooks.jpgAhmad Brooks:
He is one of those players who will likely see his chance at unrestricted free agency slip away because of the league’s labor situation. He has four years of NFL service, which in the past would’ve allowed him to test the free-agent waters. But in the likelihood that there is no new CBA, it will take six years. In reality, this probably does not affect Brooks too much. After all, I don’t think there would’ve been many teams willing to pay Brooks big money and take a chance on him. He has found a niche with the 49ers, and he’s benefitted well from good support around him. Also, what is there to make of his late-season sack splurge? Brooks was with the 49ers all of 2008, and he never stepped on the playing field, as the organization groomed him to become an outside linebacker/defensive end. He did not see much action in the first 10 games before he replaced Lawson as a nickel pass rusher. Brooks recorded five sacks in six games, including an impressive three-sack, two-forced-fumble performance against the Cardinals. The 49ers are working on a contract extension for Brooks. He is scheduled for restricted free agency, but he’ll definitely be on the team in 2010. They’ll work this offseason on developing his every-down skills, just in case Lawson is not retained past this season and they need him to take over full-time.


DiyralBriggs.jpgDiyral Briggs:
He was an undrafted free agent from Bowling Green who won a roster spot due to his work ethic, attitude and performing well when given a chance. At 6-4, 230 pounds, he has plenty of potential. The 49ers wanted to give him a chance when they promoted him from the practice squad and waived veteran Marques Harris after six games. Briggs saw action on special teams in four games. He retains his practice-squad eligibility. He is signed through 2010.


Martail Burnett: He arrived on the scene with no fanfare. That’s because the 49ers signed him to the practice squad on Oct. 7 – the same day Michael Crabtree signed a six-year contract. He was undrafted in 2008, and spent his first season on the Vikings’ practice squad. At 6-3, 262 pounds, he has very good size. He went to high school in Long Beach, and always considered the 49ers his favorite team. His got good size and speed. And if he works hard in the offseason program, he should make it to training camp, where he’ll get a chance to show what he’s got once the pads go on. Signed through 2010.


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