Over the next few weeks, I'll take a position-by-position look at the 49ers roster with an eye on the upcoming season and beyond. Today we examine the situation at outside linebacker.
Signed for 2014: Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier
Pending free agents: none
Outlook: Brooks and Smith combined for eight sacks and two forced fumbles in the playoffs, and the position is in vastly better shape than it was at this time a year ago. Last year, the backups at outside linebacker were Clark Haggans, and for five games, Eric Bakhtiari. They combined for 63 defensive snaps during the regular season and postseason. Skuta and Lemonier, meanwhile, combined for 570 snaps, and Lemonier received valuable repetitions during his rookie season.
The bulk of those snaps came during Smith's five-game absence that followed his September DUI arrest. Smith missed six weeks total - bye weeks count as far as time missed - while in rehab, and Commissioner Roger Goodell said in October that Smith's self-imposed absence will be considered when the league determines whether Smith should be punished. The 49ers hope that Smith's rehab stint will count as time served and that he will not be suspended at all during the upcoming season. Smith also has been charged with illegally possessing assault rifles relating to an out-of-control house party in 2012. He pleaded not guilty to those charges in November.
If Smith is suspended, the 49ers should be able to handle his absence. After all, they won all five games he sat out this past season. Skuta in particular was a pleasant surprise after the 49ers signed him to be a special teams player but then moved him from inside linebacker to the outside. He finished with 28 tackles in the regular season, scored a touchdown vs. Jacksonville on a 47-yard fumble return and had two sacks in the postseason. One caveat: Skuta played through the season with a foot injury, and he often was seen during the week in a walking boot. The 49ers are monitoring the injury, and it's not yet determined whether he will need surgery on the foot.
Youth Watch: The 49ers got a solid first season from Lemonier, a third-round pick. He played extensively in the preseason and finished with two sacks. He added one sack in the regular season. Like any defensive end-turned-linebacker, he must get better at dropping into coverage, and he must add strength to his lanky frame. But his rookie season was positive, and he will compete to be a part of the the team's rotation at outside linebacker in 2014.
Sidebar: When the 49ers traveled to Green Bay this month, Lemonier, who grew up in South Florida and who played college football at Auburn, never had seen snow before. So Skuta, who is from Michigan, introduced his friend and teammate to the white stuff - by nailing him with a snowball. A fight - a snowball fight - ensued.
Bottom line: The 49ers are far deeper at outside linebacker than they were a year ago. Still, the best teams in the league never pass up chances to add quality pass rushers (See: Seahawks, Seattle). If, for instance, Auburn's Dee Ford is available at pick No. 30, do the 49ers pass him up for a wide receiver or cornerback?
-- Matt Barrows