What are the 49ers looking for in an outside linebacker? Put simply, someone who can rush the passer. Trent Baalke said as much last week at the Senior Bowl. "Playing the outside linebackers spot, probably the third or the fourth thing you're going to ask those guys to do is drop," he said. "It's a lot more important for them to be able to rush the passer and set the edges on the run game. And then you worry about what they can do with the drops."
Last year, the job of outside linebacker fell to a four-man committee, which combined for a respectable 16 ½ sacks. By contrast, the Steelers starting outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley had 20 ½ sacks combined while Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews had 13 ½ sacks by himself.
A look at the 49ers outside linebackers.
Manny Lawson. (UFA) Some argue that the 49ers already have jack-of-all-trades outside linebacker in Lawson, who is fast, an excellent tackler and very good in pass coverage. He's also better at setting the edge against the run than you would think someone who has struggled to get up to 250 pounds would be. But it's clear after five years that Lawson doesn't hit on the No. 1 criterion, pass rusher. Lawson has averaged only 3 ½ sacks in the seasons he's been healthy and, more notably, was taken off the field on third downs in recent seasons.
The rap on Lawson has been that he's extremely athletic but that his mind often has muted that ability. That is, he over thinks plays and doesn't allows himself to simply react. (In that way, you could call him the Alex Smith of the defense). That's not to say that Lawson is a bad player. In fact, he's been a very good player for the 49ers. But his best fit might be as a 4-3 outside linebacker. He falls into the category of someone the 49ers would like to re-sign but at the right price.
Parys Haralson. (Signed through 2013) When Parys Haralson registered eight sacks in 2008, the 49ers thought he was on the verge of becoming something special. After all, that number was the highest sack count for a 49er since 2002 when Andre Carter had 12 ½. Haralson fit the mold of the best sack masters of the period - not very tall (He's 6-0) but strong, driven and relentless. But following that eight-sack performance - and a four-year contract extension in April 2009 that was worth $15 million -- Haralson's sack numbers have dropped to five in 2009 and then four in 2010. That's partly due to the four-man rotation the 49ers have at the two outside linebacker spots. Then again, if Haralson consistently put pressure on the quarterback, the 49ers wouldn't need to rotate.
Like Lawson, Haralson has been good at setting the edge on running plays. But he's very much emblematic of the 49ers' defense as a whole. He was good at funneling things toward the middle - the strength - of the defense. But whenever the ball got to the outside, he was a liability. Unlike Lawson, Haralson is not a guy who can chase down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. A ball carrier one-on-one with Haralson is a mismatch.
Ahmad Brooks. (Signed through 2011) Brooks is easily the most gifted of the team's outside linebackers. He's the biggest of the bunch, but also the quickest, and he's able to use that size, speed combination to get past offensive tackles. But he also has talented man's disease (TMD) - he's been able to get by on skill alone his whole life and hasn't developed the work ethic to maximize his ability. Brooks frustrated coaches by showing up at training camp this past season at more than 270 pounds (he's best in the high 250s/lows 260s), and at the Senior Bowl some people wondered aloud how heavy Brooks would be following a lengthy labor impasse that cancelled OTAs, minicamps and offseason workout programs.
Still, Brooks, who until 2009 had been an inside linebacker, showed a better understanding of the outside linebacker position in 2010 than he did a year earlier. If the 49ers can get him motivated and dedicated, they would have one half of a fearsome outside linebacker duo.
Travis LaBoy. (UFA) Before joining the 49ers, LaBoy had gone one direction - forward - in his football career. With the 49ers, he was a bit surprised by all the coverage responsibilities his position entailed. Like Haralson, LaBoy is in his comfort zone rushing the passer, and he seemed to be more talented in that area. LaBoy finished with five sacks, two passes defensed and a forced fumble despite appearing in 14 games and starting none. LaBoy also proved that a foot injury that washed out his 2009 season was behind him. However, he was slowed by a concussion in training camp and a knee injury that knocked him out the last two games of the season. That injury is not long-term, and LaBoy was walking without a limp by the end of the season.
Thaddeus Gibson. (signed through 2012) You can consider Gibson part of the 2011 draft class. He got scant playing time at the end of the season, finishing with three tackles and one forced fumble. Like everyone else listed above save Brooks, he was a college defensive end, which means he'll have to learn how to play from a two-point stance and how to drop into coverages. Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is that Gibson was drafted in the fourth round last April by the Steelers, a team with an excellent track record for finding pass rushers. Gibson, who played at Ohio State, was very good against the run but never recorded any gaudy sack numbers. He had five in 2008 and four in 2009.
-- Matt Barrows