Aldon Smith's arrest (and subsequent release from the 49ers) has hit the 49ers organization and the 49er Faithful hard. With serious star power leaving the defensive roster this offseason, many were looking to full seasons from Smith and Navorro Bowman to stabilize the defense and help return the unit to a source of game-changing dominance. Smith's return should have contributed to a devastating pass rush, which would protect a defensive secondary in transition. While Bowman's return has been inspiring, Smith's release raises questions about the quality of the pass rush. Can the 49ers generate sacks? Can the pass rush keep opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket, leading to incompletions and interceptions? Will the edge rushers run out of gas by the end of the season?
The interior pass rushers should be the same, and they should be very good. Darnell Dockett has always been more disruptive as an interior pass rusher than he has as a run stopper. The 49ers staff apparently intends to allow him to focus on pass rushing, as his practice repetitions have been limited to the nickel defense. Keeping him fresh and allowing him to attack in a style that has been successful for him throughout his career should allow him to remain aggressive and disruptive.
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Tank Carradine has had much less experience than Dockett, but he generated three sacks in his three starts last year, and he has remarkable strength and speed for his size. He was described with varying hyperbolic terms coming out of college, ranging from "freak" to "monster." In his third year, he will be counted on as a starter in the Nickel and Dime personnel groups to collapse the pocket from the inside.
Quinton Dial and Arik Armstead should rotate in with Dockett and Carradine. Both boast impressive strength and long levers, and both are impressive bull rushers who can collapse the pocket and restrict passing lanes.
The outside rush, provided primarily by the outside linebackers, will have to adjust significantly in response to Aldon Smith's release. Those remaining outside linebackers are Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch, Eli Harold, Cory Lemonier, and Marcus Rush. Brooks and Lynch collected 6 sacks each last season. The dismissal of Smith should cause some position changes, as well as a dramatic shift in practice reps.
Ahmad Brooks has elite athleticism and the big game presence to play the hero in big moments during important games (ask Drew Brees). His motor and work ethic have come into question in the past, but he stayed at the practice for the offseason program, reported to camp in top shape, and dominated the first week of training camp. He will likely move from LOLB (aligning to the right side of he offense) to the ROLB position formerly held by Smith, as he did often during Smith's suspension last year. Aligning to the left of the offense will force him to face the best pass protector, but also allow him a blind approach to the quarterback.
Aaron Lynch came on dramatically last year and displaced a fat and disinterested Brooks from the LOLB position last year. Lynch has long, powerful arms that have lent to comparisons between him and Aldon Smith. His college strength coach called out his work ethic after the draft, but he seemed completely engaged and committed last year, from camp all the way through the season. He has currently been absent from team drills, and often leaves the practice field after performing individual drills with a member of the training staff. He struggled through a hamstring strain in the offseason, and various beat writers have reported that he looks out of shape. It is possible that he reverted to the habits that caught the ire of his old strength coach and reported to camp out of shape because he simply elected not to work on his strength and conditioning. It seems far more likely that his workouts were limited by his hamstring injury, and those limited workouts were not enough to keep him in peak condition. Whether his recovery or work ethic are to blame for compromising his fitness, the 49ers will count on him to return to form before the season starts, as he will likely be favored to win the starting spot opposite Brooks.
Eli Harold is an explosive athlete that doesn't boast the elite length of an Aldon Smith or Aaron Lynch. He does, however, have an electric first step and a surprising collection of pass rushing moves for a rookie. Most rookies with his acceleration and athleticism coasted through college with a basic speed rush, and have to develop counter moves when they encounter NFL pass protectors. The main question about Harold coming out in the draft was his narrow waist (I'm not kidding). The thought presented by many scouting services was that his narrow trunk would restrict him from converting speed to power, which would greatly limit his ability to keep offensive tackles off balance throughout a game full of pass rushing opportunities. Judging from the number of reports involving Harold planting 49er linemen in the chopped up soil, I'd say this concern was misplaced. Harold should provide a challenging change of pace off of the bench, instantly threatening the edge against tackles who have repeatedly had to set strong against the explosive power of Lynch and Brooks.
Up to this point in his career, Cory Lemonier has been a pure speed rusher who has struggled to diversify his skill set. He enjoyed some success as a rookie, but the book was out on him last year, and tackles learned to kick back quickly and set wide to compensate for his speed, with little worry of being exposed by an inside counter or bull rush. If Lemonier is to make any mark on this roster, he will need to use his hands more aggressively to keep OL from controlling him, develop counter moves when his speed rush is stymied, and use his speed rush to set up tackles for an unexpected bull rush (speed to power) or stunt.
Marcus Rush is a little undersized for a 3-4 OLB, but he has enjoyed some success in training camp, exhibiting impressive quick-twitch athleticism and winning some 1 on 1 matchups. His best chance for sticking on the roster involves him outperforming Lemonier on special teams and proving that he is not too small to set the edge in the running game and challenge the edge on passing downs.
The wild card contender to provide an outside rush is Lawrence Okoye. He is the only player on the roster whose freakish athleticism can rival that of Aldon Smith. He has already received repetitions at the DE position in Nickel sets, which generally are reserved for the OLBs. His game is far less nuanced, and his lack of experience might make him a little slow to read a tackle's pass set and counter properly, but he might approximate the effect a rookie Aldon Smith had on opponents in 2011: a freakishly strong, surprisingly fast force exploding off the edge with more power than technique, collapsing an entire side of the pocket. He's still a long shot to make the team, but his odds improve in Smith's absence.
Eric Mangini has never shied from using his defensive backs to bolster the pass rush, and Navorro Bowman has the ability to make guards look silly, so the Nickel front won't be responsible for placing all of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That said, the 49ers have several attractive options, and significant depth, remaining on the roster to harass signal callers this season.