When it comes to their own soon-to-be free agents, the 49ers mostly have leverage. At cornerback, for example, they'd like to bring back Carlos Rogers. But the free-agent market will have plenty of cornerbacks if they can't, and the 49ers are bullish about youngster Chris Culliver. There also promise to be quite a few free-agent safeties if Dashon Goldson proves difficult to sign, and the 49ers have the option of using the franchise tag on him as well.
At outside linebacker, however, the cupboard is far more bare. The 49ers somehow made it through an 18-game season with just three on the active roster, and one of them, rookie Aldon Smith, mostly played defensive end on third downs. The 49ers don't even have a young developmental prospect. Rookie Monte Simmons, who spent the year on the practice squad, was the only practice squadder not signed to a future contract in recent weeks.
All of which leads to the question - what kind of priority is free agent Ahmad Brooks? Incoming defensive coordinator Vic Fangio took a leap of faith with Brooks this year. Brooks never had started more than five games since entering the NFL in 2006. Fangio, however, not only made Brooks his starter, he didn't have anyone playing behind him. Brooks started 18 games and played nearly every snap.
Brooks is an interesting case. He's been plagued with work ethic and character issues since college. Front office officials worried that Brooks would be the absolutely wrong person to reward with a lucrative, long-term contract. The concern was that his work ethic would go to pot if that occurred.
Brooks, however, had an awakening with the death of his father, former NFL defensive lineman Perry Brooks, in the spring of 2010. (You can read about that here). He's changed his lifestyle and is more dedicated to his craft. His 2011 season proves that. Brooks held up throughout the long season and finished with seven sacks, good for third on the team behind Justin Smith (7 Â½ sacks).
He's also the most versatile outside linebacker on the squad. Veteran Parys Haralson is excellent against the run but not nearly as good when asked to drop back or to run down a ball carrier at the sideline. Aldon Smith, meanwhile, spent 95 percent of his playing time running upfield after the quarterback this year and is just learning the intricacies of outside linebacker.
Lastly there simply aren't a lot of 3-4 outside linebackers available. There was a report today that the Cowboys might place the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer, who finished 2011 with fewer sacks (six) than Brooks. The Texans, meanwhile, will make it a priority to re-sign Mario Williams. Jarret Johnson might be an option. But he's three years older than Brooks and had 2 Â½ sacks in 2011.
-- Matt Barrows
Free-agent 3-4 OLBs
Alama-Francis, Ikaika, Miami
Applewhite, Antwan - Carolina
Brooks, Ahmad - SF
Clark Haggans - Arizona
Johnson, Jarret - Baltimore
Jones, Edgar - Baltimore
Porter, Joey - Arizona
Spencer, Anthony - Dallas
Thomas, Bryan - NYJ
Walden, Erik - GB
Williams, Mario - Houston