When you think of 49ers’ linebackers, you think of Patrick Willis, the rookie inside linebacker whose amazing season won him the defensive rookie of the year award and earned him a February trip to Hawaii. But of the team’s four starting linebacker spots, Willis’ is the only one not surrounded by question marks. On the outside, Manny Lawson is coming back from injury while Tully Banta-Cain was largely ineffective. And Derek Smith, who started next to Willis this season, might not return due to a soaring salary and declining speed.
Tully Banta-Cain. The 49ers’ free-agent acquisition looked great in the offseason. He had a non-stop motor, always seemed to be in the backfield and had the chops to take on verbose Vernon Davis in practice. Linebackers coach Mike Singletary said he expected at least 10 sacks out of Banta-Cain and Banta-Cain himself said his goal was to get one sack a game. Instead he finished with four sacks, including one in which Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was chased straight into Banta-Cain’s arms when the linebacker hadn’t gotten off the line of scrimmage and was facing the wrong way. Not exactly a highlight-reel play, in other words. What went wrong? Banta-Cain seemed to be most effective when bull-rushing his opponent, yet continually tried a spin move that mostly got him nowhere. He certainly was hurt when his counterpart at outside linebacker, Manny Lawson, was knocked out for the season and he also was seldom used when the team moved to a 4-3 front or their big nickel package. Banta-Cain’s best game came late in the season against Tampa Bay when he was on the field for the bulk of the game. The 49ers finished with a ho-hum 31 sacks this season, but only nine of them came from the area that should be generating most of the pressure, outside linebacker. The team must upgrade that spot in the offseason.
Roderick Green. Green showed a knack for getting to the quarterback in 2006, even beating Seattle tackle Walter Jones for a couple of sacks in a home win against the Seahawks. So it was a bit of a surprise when Green was cut following the preseason. The explanation was that Green was too one-dimensional. But that one dimension – pass rush – was something the 49ers sorely lacked this season. (See: above). The 49ers ended up bringing Green back in early November and he boosted the pass rush a bit, finishing with two sacks. It’s clear that Green does not figure heavily into the team’s future plans. What’s also clear, however, is that the 49ers don’t have anyone better than Green at rushing the quarterback.
Parys Haralson. Haralson was a defensive end in college and the 49ers expected he would spend his rookie season (2006) in learning mode as he figured out how to play outside linebacker. That apprenticeship, however, was interrupted by a torn pectoral muscle, and he was forced to finish it early this season. Haralson started contributing much more beginning in mid November and showed a nice knack for getting around the right tackle and harassing the quarterback. Haralson is very intense and has long, thick arms to prevent lineman from getting into his body. He has not shown that he can drop back in coverage and keep pace with running backs and tight ends. At the minimum, he will be a valuable back up as a pass-rushing linebacker.
Manny Lawson. It’s scary to think what Patrick Willis and a healthy Manny Lawson could have accomplished this season considering they are two of the fastest 49ers at any position. ‘Healthy,’ however, is the key word for Lawson as it is any player who suffered a torn ACL. Lawson’s game is built on covering tight ends, dropping into coverage and pursuing plays from the back-side. When the 49ers lost Lawson in early September, they lost the most unpredictable element of their defense, the one player that kept offenses guessing. Lawson probably won’t return to the practice field until training camp. The 49ers could use another versatile linebacker to play behind him.
Jay Moore. The rookie suffered a bad high-ankle sprain and was placed on IR before the season. Before he got hurt, he was making the difficult transition from three-point-stance defensive end to pass-rushing linebacker. The 49ers love Moore's size - 6-4, 270 pounds - and he has been a punctual student in the film room all season long. He should provide nice depth at the all-important OLB spot next season, a la Haralson this year.
Next: The disappearance of Brandon Moore.
-- Matt Barrows