A Look Back at 2012
Since Vic Fangio took over as defensive coordinator when Jim Harbaugh arrived prior to 2011, the 49ers' success on defense has started up front and worked its way back to the secondary. But perhaps the biggest difference between the defense of the last two seasons and prior coaching regime has been the pass rush, which has been catalyzed by the team's talented outside linebackers.
No player made a bigger impact in that department than Aldon Smith, who backed up his 14-sack rookie season in 2011 with a monster sophomore campaign registering 19.5 sacks. He finished just one sack behind league leader J.J. Watt with 20.5. The former first-round pick's regular season was highlighted by a six-sack performance against the Bears in Week 11.
The knock on Smith's season, however, was not being able to get to the quarterback late in the year. After Dec. 9's game against the Dolphins, Smith didn't have any sacks, including the playoffs. After the Super Bowl, it was revealed he was playing with a torn labrum and required surgery to repair it. He didn't participate in OTAs while rehabbing the injury. Smith had been listed on the team's injury report with a shoulder injury from Week 12 through the rest of the year. The pass rush took a big hit when Justin Smith suffered a torn triceps injury, curtailing the duo's two-man game they ran against opposing offensive lines that proved difficult to block.
Smith was on the field for 95.6 percent of the team's defensive snaps in the regular season and played every snap of the three playoff games. He's become one of the league's best combinations of speed, length and power coming off the edge.
On the strong side of the defense was Ahmad Brooks, who signed a six-year, $37 million contract heading into last season to bookend Smith. Brooks was another player that saw a noticeable drop off in production as the season wore on, although he managed to finish the regular season with eight sacks. Oddly enough, his two best performances came in Week 3's 24-13 loss in Minnesota and Week 10's tie with the Rams.
Perhaps his biggest play came in Atlanta in the NFC title game, when he knocked down Matt Ryan's pass on third down at the 10-yard line up just four points with 1:18 to play. But like Smith, Brooks was on the field for 92.1 percent of the team's snaps and could have benefited from a lighter workload.
Brooks has evolved into a stout strong side linebacker, but is a better player against the run than the pass. While the 49ers' defense ranked third in the NFL in scoring (18.2 points per game), the team was 22nd in red zone defense, which in part came because the unit was in the middle of the league in sacks, despite Smith's big numbers. There aren't many holes in the defense, but finding more ways to get the passer would certainly help.
Comings and Goings
The theme for the early rounds of San Francisco's draft was to add depth to the defensive front to take some of the burden off players that have played a high volume of snaps over the last two seasons by bringing in some fresh legs. The 49ers addressed the outside linebacker spot by adding Corey Lemonier of Auburn in the second third round.
Lemonier, a former first-team All-SEC selection in his sophomore season with 9.5 sacks, figures to be a solid compliment to Brooks. His size and strength might prevent him from being good against the run initially, but he could be a valuable piece in long yardage situations where he could focus on rushing the passer.
His addition could also allow Brooks to be moved inside which might help keep the Ray McDonald or Justin Smith fresh on passing downs. The 6'3", 255-pounder ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds scouting combine. The concern with Lemonier might be the drop off in production from his sophomore to junior season. But it's worth noting there were similar concerns with Smith, who only played in four games his final collegiate year and only had three sacks.
Parys Haralson will be mentioned in this section because he didn't play a single down in 2012 after suffering a torn triceps injury in the preseason. Head coach Jim Harbaugh admitted recently that he regretted not giving Haralson the reserve return designation that would have allowed him to come back for the stretch run.
Haralson stuck around the facility all season and remained an integral veteran on the team and will be an interesting player to track during training camp. The 29-year-old has 21.5 career sacks could be a valuable addition to the defensive rotation, although his best seasons are likely behind him. He took a sizeable pay cut to remain with the team and compete for a roster spot in 2013.
Clark Haggans, who was brought in to replace Haralson played only 50 snaps last year and was not brought back. Linebacker Dan Skuta signed a two-year deal for special teams purposes and has played mostly inside linebacker throughout his four-year career. But with Brooks and Smith out of action in the team's offseason program, Skuta saw some reps at outside linebacker.
Outside Linebackers in Camp
Ahmad Brooks (6'3", 259 pounds) eighth season, Virginia
Parys Haralson (6'0", 255) eighth season, Tennessee
Cam Johnson (6'3", 268) second season, Virginia
Corey Lemonier (6'3", 255) rookie, Auburn
Dan Skuta (6'2", 250) fifth season, Grand Valley State
Aldon Smith (6'4", 258) third season, Missouri
Locks to Make the Roster
Smith and Brooks are the only givens of this group. Lemonier's status is also fairly safe given his high draft status. The addition of Lemonier should allow the 49ers to cut down on the number of snaps for Smith and Brooks in an effort to keep them fresh for a potential championship push.
Battling for Spots
With the three top players at outside linebacker a virtual lock, there remains likely only one roster spot available for the remaining four players. Johnson and Fleming are coming off injury-plagued seasons that hindered their rookie years.
Both players will be entering their second NFL training camp. Fleming was a fifth-round pick but tore an ACL last summer that shelved him for the year. Johnson required a procedure on his knee last June and was relegated to the practice squad after not making the cut in training camp. He found himself on the active roster for the first time in Week 16 against Seattle, but was inactive in the playoffs.
Johnson, a seventh-round selection, could be a casualty of the numbers game. But he did show he can contribute on special teams. He has an edge there because Fleming didn't play at all. But Fleming was a fifth-round draft selection, so he might have more value to the team.
In OTAs, Fleming appeared to reinjure his knee in coverage drills but later returned to action. It's unclear how significant the injury was, but it's worth keeping an eye on in training camp. If it affects his mobility, he could have a hard time cracking the roster.
The wild card could Haralson, who is viewed as a valuable piece because of his veteran leadership qualities. But in a reserve role, he might not be able to contribute on special teams the way Fleming, Johnson, or Skuta could. Haralson will be one of the team's tough decisions in training camp.
Although Skuta played on the outside in OTAs, he's still viewed as an inside linebacker and will likely play there in a reserved role while being a prominent member of the special teams unit.