San Francisco 49ers 2016 Position Breakdown: Looking at the Linebacker Position
By Peter Panacy
The San Francisco 49ers didn’t add an inside linebacker in the 2016 NFL Draft, which was widely viewed as a team need. So how will this position, both on the inside and outside, shape up this season? Niner Noise takes a look in this installment of each positional offseason breakdown.
The San Francisco 49ers still have a glaring need to place a solid playmaking inside linebacker alongside perennial Pro Bowler NaVorro Bowman.
This was a need not addressed by general manager Trent Baalke in the 2016 NFL Draft. Even with former Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III on the boards in Round 7, the 49ers elected to go with cornerback Prince Charles Iworah instead.
Wright was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, who held the very next pick.
On the outside, the 49ers still have linebackers Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks in assumed starting roles for the season. There are plusses and minuses associated with this likely projection for the regular season. On one hand, these two led the team in sacks last year with 6.5 apiece.
But there isn’t exactly a plethora of depth, and 49ers fans know all to well of the anemic pass rush San Francisco’s defense showcased in 2015.
Yet there may be some signs of hope on the horizon. A lot of it may have to do with scheme and placing emphasis on other positions on defense.
So let’s take a look at the 49ers linebacker position in this latest installment of Niner Noise’s position-by-position analysis this offseason.
In spite of the efforts from Lynch and All-Pro NaVorro Bowman, who led the NFL in tackles last season with 116, San Francisco’s linebacker corps had to be considered one of the weaker links in a defensive chain of weak links.
Chief among these were two specific elements: the pass rush and run-stopping abilities.
Let’s address the latter first. The 49ers ranked 29th in the league last year against the run, having allowed a whopping 2,020 yards on the ground. While Bowman’s tackling prowess was exemplary — especially considering his injury recovery — he’s in obvious need of help here.
Fellow linebacker Michael Wilhoite, whom the Niners recently brought back on a one-year deal, ended up grading out as the 49ers’ worst defender, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) with a minus-16.5 overall mark. His minus-5.4 run-defense grade was also lowest on the team.
Being strong up the middle is inherent to stopping NFL-running schemes. The 49ers struggled here, and signs don’t point to them regaining any sort of prowess anytime soon.
Going to the outside, the 49ers weren’t able to generate much of a pass rush either. San Francisco ranked 29th in the NFL with just 28 sacks on the season.
While Brooks was tied for the team lead here, his overall production was a far cry from the Pro Bowl-caliber 2013 campaign he had not long ago. Brooks finished with a minus-10.2 overall PFF grade.
The Niners didn’t get much production out of backup linebackers Eli Harold and Corey Lemonier. While Harold may still be an up-and-coming player, Lemonier looks to be more of a bust ever since San Francisco drafted him in Round 3 back in 2013.
Lemonier was relegated to just 275 snaps over just 10 games last season.
2016 49ers Linebackers
The 49ers added a little depth during the offseason with some undrafted free agent signings following the NFL Draft.
Hopefully, this group of players — listed, courtesy of the team’s website — will add to some heated competition and generate some positive results on the other side:
- Kevin Anderson
- Ray-Ray Armstrong
- Nick Bellore
- NaVorro Bowman
- Ahmad Brooks
- Jason Fanaika
- Eli Harold
- Gerald Hodges
- Lenny Jones
- Corey Lemonier
- Aaron Lynch
- Shayne Skov
- Michael Wilhoite
San Francisco’s UDFA signings may push backups like Lemonier, Shayne Skov and Nick Bellore to a certain extent, although some are viewed as more traditional outside linebackers.
What to Watch for 2016
Not discussed yet is the possibility San Francisco will look to move safety Jaquiski Tartt into more of a hybrid linebacker in sub packages. Niner Noise touted on it on our safety position breakdown earlier, and we went into even more detail while describing why Baalke possibly elected to avoid the inside linebacker position altogether.
Take from those pieces what you like, but at least a possible Tartt-to-linebacker move gives the 49ers some options moving forward.
With Wilhoite under contract for one more season, a chief position battle to watch will be what happens with Wilhoite and fellow inside linebacker Gerald Hodges. The Niners picked Hodges up in a midseason trade last year, and he posted a minus-5.6 PFF overall grade — considerably better than his counterpart.
Will Hodges do enough during the offseason to pass over Wilhoite? We’ll have to see.
On the outside, there’s little doubt Lynch is the primary pass-rushing force on the roster. And he should get some help from defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner as they look to open up lanes.
But an interesting camp battle to watch will be between Brooks and Harold. Brooks is on the wrong side of 30 years old and, with an average cap hit of $8.327 million over the next two seasons, is one of the more expensive players on San Francisco’s roster.
Meanwhile, Harold could be on the ascent. He’s been putting on muscle to bulk up for more pass-rushing duties in 2016.
“I’m quite a bit stronger,” Harold told Joe Fann of 49ers.com. “I felt like, this is my job. This is what I do for a living, and so I have to take it seriously.
“I tried to put the right things in my body to help me out. I’ve got a great support system in Virginia. My family was cooking me the good meals.”
Whether or not this translates over to success this season remains to be seen. But in an ideal world, the 49ers would like to replace Brooks with Harold sooner rather than later.
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The book also could be rapidly closing on Lemonier. His 275 snaps last season, compared to Harold’s 344, is a reflection about how the 49ers felt about him — both then and, most likely, right now.
Maybe this will provide some motivation for Lemonier to go “all out” during training camp in order to save his job and, quite possibly, a roster spot.
But the clock has already been ticking for a while.
We’ll see how San Francisco’s group of linebackers shapes up in coming weeks and months. So stay tuned for continued analysis and breakdown as Niner Noise looks at each position this offseason.
Next: Looking at 49ers Cornerbacks in 2016
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.