I would be quick to argue that the most important defensive position on a football field is pass-rusher. Whether operating from a traditional 4-3 base or odd-man front, the pass-rusher continues to be the most valued position in today’s NFL.
Think of it this way. A good pass-rushing team makes life exponentially easier for their secondary. Why? Because the quarterback has less time to go through his progressions, despite receivers being open.
Did you know? OLB Aaron Lynch is one of only 3 49ers since 2000 to register at least 6 sacks in each of his first two NFL seasons… #49ers
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) November 19, 2015
A good cornerback can essentially take away half the field initially, but due to a lack of a solid pass-rush, the receiver will often times get open. Why? Because the quarterback has more time to make the proper read.
While it’s true cornerbacks can create coverage sacks, those are few and far between. On the flip-side, a strong organic pass-rush up-front forces the offense into making expedited decisions, which in turn creates a higher probability for turnovers. I would rather have the former rather than the latter, as I’m a firm believer in everything starts up-front.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, this was the team’s Achilles heel last season.
The team ranked 29th in the NFL with 28.0 sacks. The last time they were this bad? You’d have to go back to RB Frank Gore’s rookie season in 2005. But all is not lost in San Francisco, as they have third-year OLB Aaron Lynch.
At 6-5, 265, Lynch is by far the team’s best pass-rusher. Drafted in the fifth-round (No. 150) of the 2014 NFL Draft, Lynch has shown considerable upside as a potential double-digit sack artist. Something that hasn’t been seen since OLB Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks in 2012, it will now be up to Lynch to tackle that role.
However, the question remains, will that become reality?
I’m told that #49ers OLB Aaron Lynch has been working through a nagging hamstring injury that has hampered him in college.
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) May 30, 2015
During last year’s training camp, Lynch was dealing with numerous injuries. From an ailing lower back to a recurring hamstring, Lynch found himself behind the eight ball, as he tried to nurse himself back to health, in time for the 2015 season.
Fast forward to today, and Lynch looks poised for a breakout season. Lynch missed 2.5 games last year due to suffering a concussion. An injury that occurred on Dec. 6 against the Chicago Bears, Lynch never fully recovered as he was shutout in the sack category for the remainder of the season. The story of 2015 for Lynch Mobb was injuries.
But this is a different year. Different team. Different coaching style.
A good coach puts his players in the best position to make plays. What does that mean? It means that the coach designs game-plans tailoring to a player’s strengths as opposed to their weakness. In doing so, it creates a higher probability for negative plays (tackles for loss, sacks, QB pressures, etc).
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) May 20, 2016
Luckily for the 49ers, they have an aggressive one in new 49ers DC Jim O’Neil. At 37, O’Neil is one of the youngest defensive coordinators in the NFL. A coordinator who loves to apply pressure from all sides, that should bode well for Lynch, as his strong-suit is his pass-rush.
#49ers OLB Aaron Lynch has 12.5 career sacks. 11.5 came from the LOLB (strong-side). By my count 6.0 of those sacks came by outside rip move
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) May 21, 2016
Lynch loves to play the left side (strong-side) of the formation, but it remains to be seen if he will remain there in 2016.
“I’m more comfortable on the left. I can set the edge, rush off the right side, but I played most of my time in college, high school on the left side, so that’s just where I’m most comfortable. But being on the right side isn’t a step back,” Lynch said back in August.
OLB Paul Kruger who plays the LOLB position for the Cleveland Browns, became vividly frustrated under O’Neil’s scheme, as he felt under-utilized. A question asked by a member of the media, Kruger did not hold back his feelings on his lack of pass-rush opportunities…
“You asking me? I probably wouldn’t say so,” Kruger said. “I don’t have too much more to say about it but I don’t put everything personally this year on that. But I don’t think I was utilized [pass-rusher] in the best way.”
A year after leading the team with 11.0 sacks in 2014, Kruger had his lowest output since 2010 with 2.5 sacks. So what’s in store for Lynch in 2016?
While it’s still early in the season to tell, I can’t help but think that Lynch will have more pass-rushing opportunities than Kruger. He is by far the team’s best pass-rusher from the OLB position and his pass-rush alone should make the players around him better (especially on the back-end).
With the 49ers trying to regain their form as a top 10 defense, it will be interesting to see how they use Lynch. A player who has Pro Bowl potential, it will be exciting to see if this is the year, he comes into his own.
In 30 regular season games, Lynch has recorded 61 tackles, 12.5 sacks, and 7 PBUs.
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