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 a whole lot easier on their secondary. Why? Because the quarterback has less time to go through his progressions, despite some receivers being open.
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.
The San Francisco 49ers run a 3-4 odd man front, and appear to be rolling the dice on a three-man rotation at outside linebacker.
After doing little in free-agency or Draft to address the No. 29 ranked pass-rush, I think 49ers GM Trent Baalke is content with the level of talent at the position, for now.
In my opinion, the linebacker draft class was not as strong as in year’s past, which is probably why Baalke turned the other cheek. One player I have them targeting should they hold a top five selection in next year’s draft is Texas A&M OLB Myles Garrett.
However, for the sake of this article, we will break down the current players who will be vying for playing time this season, starting with second-year OLB Eli Harold.
Third-year OLB Aaron Lynch is a lock on the left side, but the other side seems to be a two-way camp battle between Harold and descending 11-year veteran OLB Ahmad Brooks. Brooks, 32, has since been on the decline after his rise to All-Pro status in 2013, while Harold was recently hit with some ‘body analyses‘ by Baalke.
Both players will be looking to return to form in 2016, but Harold may have the inside track.
During the off-season Harold from the advice of Baalke, was asked to bulk up. How much? 18 pounds. In order to play the 3-4 weak OLB position (right-side) requires a great amount of strength, athleticism, and technique. The single most important skill set on the right-side is of course, pass-rushing.
Luckily for Harold, he has the work ethic, intangibles and fundamentals, to thrive against some of the game’s elite left tackles. Racking up sacks in a single-season is one thing. Racking up sacks from the right-side is a whole different ball game.
I can’t emphasize fundamentals enough, especially when rushing the quarterback. A college edge-rusher can rack up stats simply by taking advantage of his speed. But that rarely translates to the NFL. A prime example is 49ers 2013 third-round pick OLB Corey Lemonier, who up to this point has not developed any solid pass-rush moves to date.
Fortunately, Harold has a good foundation of muscle memory when it comes to firing out of the blocks. He has a good forward lean while possessing the athleticism to get ‘skinny’ coming off the edge. Whether sinking his hips and dipping his inside shoulder coming off the edge or simply using a push-pull rip move, Harold is fundamentally sound when it comes to his pass-rush.
However, the pass-rush was never Harold’s problem. It was his inability to set the edge in the run game. Numerous times during the the team’s last five-game stretch, I noticed Harold being completely erased from the play.
The 3-4 weak-side linebacker position requires more strength than your typical 4-3 ‘backer, so I’m sure that’s why Baalke asked Harold to add some more muscle to his frame. A prototypical 3-4 OLB is roughly around the 6-3 to 6-5 range weighing around 255 to 270. Harold scaled in at the NFL combine at 247.
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) April 28, 2016
In order for Harold to successfully fulfill his run fit assignments, he needs to be able to hold the POA (Point of Attack). Typically the weak-side linebacker has back-side containment responsibilities, so it’s imperative that Harold can hold his own especially in the run game.
As for dropping back in coverage? That’s rare coming from a weak-side linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. How many times did you see OLB Aldon Smith drop back with the 49ers? Not to mention, you would be taking away from what he does best, which is rushing the quarterback, the 49ers can hide that deficiency, as it’s rarely asked under their scheme.
In 16 games last year, Harold recorded 14 tackles including 5 tackles for loss.
As the NFL continues to transcend into a pass-happy league, do not be surprised if Harold shines in year two, as he has the tools and mentality to get the job done. Especially on the right side.