49ers review: Linebackers

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49ers review: Linebackers

This is the second installment of a nine-part series that reviews every 49ers player and position group.The 49ers' group of linebackers included two first-team All-Pros and a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. It's difficult to do any better than that. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (and Larry Grant, when he subbed for Willis) were exceptional against the run. The outside group, led by pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith, accounted for 23 sacks. Obviously, this unit played a major role in the 49ers' defensive ranking of No. 4 in yards allowed and second-best in the NFL in points allowed. Grade: A
Patrick Willis -- His name was beginning to surface in talk about the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But he sustained a hamstring strain that sidelined him in the first quarter against St. Louis on Dec. 4 and three other games. Willis' tackle numbers were down this season, in large part because he had another speedy linebacker with sideline-to-sideline range lining up next to him. But more was asked of Willis in coverage this season, as he often was asked to shadow top threats at tight end. Willis had an interception and broke up 12 passes. Using the 49ers' numbers, Willis recorded 121 tackles to rank second on the team behind Bowman. Willis recorded two sacks. That's an area in which he can become more productive. He also forced four fumbles and recovered two. Because of the injury, his season could've been a lot better. But he was still good enough to be honored with first-team All-Pro recognition and his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl in five NFL seasons.NaVorro Bowman -- There was a healthy amount of skepticism when the 49ers did not re-sign veteran Takeo Spikes. But all those doubts were quickly erased, as Bowman got off to a strong start and carried it through the entire season. He was outstanding. His injection of speed in the middle of the defense was eye-popping. The biggest compliment that he could receive was this: Often, the 49ers staff had to rewind the video to determine whether it was Bowman or Willis making the tackle. Bowman led the team with 173 tackles to overtake Willis as the team's top tackler. He also recorded a pair of sacks. He did not make the NFC Pro Bowl team, but he was named to the Associated Press All-NFL first team, along with Willis. Heading into his third NFL season, the future looks bright for Bowman. And the 49ers are set at inside linebacker for at least two more seasons.Ahmad Brooks -- He played just about every snap this season at left outside linebacker, as he seemed to grasp Vic Fangio's defense well enough to handle his responsibilities against the run and the pass. Brooks recorded seven sacks and was third on the team with 46 quarterback pressures. Brooks typically moved to left defensive end in nickel situations when the 49ers would convert to a four-man line. He was also pretty solid against the run. He had 12 tackles for losses on the year.Parys Haralson -- He was the 49ers' right outside linebacker from Week 1 all the way through the end of the season. And Haralson did a good job at what he was asked to do. He set the edge against the run, and the 49ers ranked fourth-best in the league on outside run plays to his side. Also, by handing the responsibilities in the run game, it allowed rookie Aldon Smith to concentrate solely on rushing the passer. That area was considered a strength of Haralson's when he topped out at eight sacks in 2008, his third season in the NFL. But his sack numbers decreased each season since then as he became better vs. the run. Together, Haralson and Smith formed a very strong three-down combination.Aldon Smith -- He did not have the offseason program to learn the responsibilities and techniques of an outside linebacker. So the 49ers' coaching staff made it easy for him. His assignment was to rush the passer while working on his complete game in practices. Smith exceeded expectations as a rookie with 14 sacks -- the 49ers' highest individual total in a decade. He also added a couple of sacks in the playoffs. Smith exhibited a rare blend of quickness, strength and closing speed. He showed DeMarcus Ware-like ability. And next season, he'll have a chance to work into an every-down role. Larry Grant -- He had a couple big hits on special teams throughout the season. And when Willis went down with an injury for the better part of four games, Grant stepped right into the lineup and played well. In those four games, he recorded 29 tackles with two sacks and broke up five passes. Obviously, Grant will be a backup if he returns to the 49ers. He is scheduled to be a restricted free agent. If another team envisions him as a starter, he could be lured away.Blake Costanzo -- He did not play a snap of defense, but his value was on special teams. In many ways, he exemplified the whole blue-collar mindset that Jim Harbaugh instilled in the 49ers. Costanzo was named as a Pro Bowl alternate after grading out as the 49ers' best special-teams performer. His best game was in the playoffs when he forced a fumble and recovered a fumble on special teams in the 49ers' victory over the New Orleans Saints.Tavares Gooden -- The four-year veteran was one of the 49ers' core special-teams players. He had just one tackle on defense for the season, but he came up with 12 tackles on special teams. He is scheduled for unrestricted free agency. He could return in the same role next season.

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

The 49ers’ new regime heads to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week with the first major wave of offseason activity set to kick off.

Already, the 49ers have made roster improvements. And there figure to be plenty of activity ahead in the coming weeks.

Here are some questions submitted by readers on Facebook for this edition of 49ers Mailbag:

Do you see the 49ers cutting ties with larger contracts like Bethea, Torrey Smith and Ahmad Brooks?‬ (Blair Wilkins)
The 49ers have approximately $75 million in space under the salary cap – and that’s before any adjustment of Colin Kaepernick’s contract. So it’s not as if the organization needs to create cap room.

Any decision made to part ways with veteran players will be made solely on how that player fits into what the 49ers envision on the field.

And that’s what general manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff are doing now. They are studying the video from last season to determine which players fit their ideals.

Safety Antoine Bethea is scheduled to earn $5.75 million. Bethea, 32, enters the final year of his contract. There is no question he is everything the 49ers want in a player off the field. If one of the younger guys is not better than Bethea, there is no reason to get rid of him.

Brooks is on the books to earn $5.3 million in 2017. That’s not a huge amount for a starting outside linebacker or defensive end – whichever spot he might fit best. The 49ers must look to upgrade their pass rush. Brooks turns 33 next month. He’s good for six sacks a season. Again, it’s not as if the 49ers can’t afford him. And, as of now, it’s not as if the 49ers have anyone better.

Smith is scheduled to earn $8 million. He has been vastly underutilized in his two seasons since signing with the 49ers. He’s the most interesting case of the high-priced veterans.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on using the running game to set up the play-action shot down the field. Smith is limited. He’s not a possession receiver. He’s not going to make plays over the middle. He is an outside receiver whose contributions come in the vertical passing game. But that’s what Shanahan wants.

If Smith is paired with a strong tight end, a running back who catch the ball out of the backfield, a slot receiver with short-area quickness to get open underneath, a very good receiver on the other side and an accurate quarterback who can throw the deep ball, there should be a role for Smith in the 49ers’ offense.

Will the 49ers continue to be aggressive pursuing free agents this offseason? If so, what positions?‬ (Bradley Lodge)
The 49ers have zeroed in on two veteran free agents and they signed them both.

The organization has already spent more money than it did all of last offseason on veteran free agency with the four-year, $16 million deal to sign defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, whom the Miami Dolphins recently released.

Nickel back K’Waun Williams has a history with 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. The 49ers did not have to make much of a financial investment to sign him.

The 49ers will definitely go after a veteran quarterback or two in free agency or via trade. Pass rusher, inside linebacker and wide receiver are other positions the 49ers can be expected to look during free agency.

The opening of the new league year – when free-agent signings and trades can occur – is March 9. The draft is seven weeks later.

The 49ers must fill as many of their needs with smart deals that fit into the long-term plan with veteran acquisitions. Then, the draft is about taking the best players on their board when it’s time to select. Teams that reach for need generally strike out.

What are the chances of drafting a QB with first pick and playing them behind a Kap / Cousins until they're ready to become starter?‬ (Hillory Broussard)
If Colin Kaepernick returns, it will not be as a no-questions-asked starter. Just read what Lynch said on KNBR this week about the team’s needs:

“Do we have some places – probably the ultimate position, quarterback – where we need to improve? Absolutely. And we’re committed to doing that.”

That statement can easily be interpreted that Lynch does not believe the 49ers had a starting-caliber quarterback on the roster last season.

But if the 49ers were to go out and swing a trade for Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s going to take a big commitment – in terms of draft picks and a suitable new contract. Then, the 49ers would have that player.

Cousins or Garoppolo would unquestionably fill the 49ers’ need at quarterback for 2017 and beyond -- at least in the minds of the 49ers' new decision-makers. There would be no reason for the 49ers to then draft a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick – if the 49ers even had the No. 2 overall pick at that point.

 

49ers have already spent more in 2017 free agency than a year ago

49ers have already spent more in 2017 free agency than a year ago

Under the 49ers’ new regime, the club has already invested more in the free-agent market than a year ago under then-general manager Trent Baalke.

Just a reminder: The free-agent signing period does not officially open until March 9.

The 49ers on Friday reached a contract agreement with veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who is penciled into be a starter in the team’s new 4-3 base scheme under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

"As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement released Saturday morning. “A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team. Earl is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league. We believe those qualities are contagious and will help to make our team stronger. We look forward to the impact Earl will have on the field, in the locker room and in our community.”

It was the first significant move under Lynch, who also signed a player with NFL experience earlier in the week.

The 49ers also added cornerback K’Waun Williams to a one-year contract. Williams served as the Cleveland Browns’ nickel back for two seasons. The Browns released him before the start of last season and he was unable to play due to an ankle injury.

Mitchell was available to be signed before the start of the new league year because the Miami Dolphins released him last week in a move to save the team $4 million in cap space.

Mitchell took four free-agent visits and after wrapping up his tour with the Atlanta Falcons on Friday, he and the 49ers quickly agreed on a four-year, $16 million contract that includes $5.5 million of money in the first year, according to a source.

Last year, Baalke did little to improve the roster for coach Chip Kelly. The 49ers, who finished 5-11 in Jim Tomsula's one season, dropped to 2-14. Just hours after the season concluded, the 49ers announced the firings of Baalke and Kelly.

The only veteran free-agent addition who stepped on the field for the 49ers last season was offensive lineman Zane Beadles. The 49ers signed Beadles in late-March to a three-year, $9.75 million contract with a $1.75 million signing bonus. Beadles had a good season for the 49ers, starting 12 games at left guard, two games at left tackle and the final two games at center.

The 49ers have already shown more willingness to be aggressive under Lynch’s leadership.

Mitchell, 29, is a seven-year veteran who began his NFL career from 2010 to ’13 with the Houston Texans. He was a rookie in Saleh’s final season as assistant linebackers coach in Houston.

Mitchell joins DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Quinton Dial on the 49ers defensive line. The 49ers view Mitchell as a high-energy player who bring good character to the locker room. The signing of Mitchell could be an indication the 49ers are moving on from Glenn Dorsey, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

With 5.5 sacks in seven seasons, the 49ers do not figure to use Mitchell in passing situations. The club must try to bolster its pass rush in free agency or the draft. Last season, Buckner and Ahmad Brooks shared the team-lead with six sacks apiece. In 2015, Brooks and Aaron Lynch both led the way with 6.5 sacks.