On Friday, San Francisco 49ers OLB Aaron Lynch was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the upcoming season for violating league policy on substances of abuse. Lynch, who is entering his third season in the league, was already considered to be the team's best pass rusher.
The suspension makes Lynch unavailable until the 49ers' October 6 Thursday night home game against the Arizona Cardinals. That means that he will miss games against the Los Angeles Rams at home, the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks on the road, and then the Dallas Cowboys at home. However, Lynch will still be able to participate in training camp and the team's exhibition games.
"According to the NFL's policy on substances of abuse, a player who has a violation while within Stage Two of the program is subject to a four-game suspension without pay," explained Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. "A second violation while in Stage Two would result in a six-game suspension."
Lynch had 6.5 sacks last season through 14 games, tying with fellow outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, and accounted for nearly a quarter of the team's sack total last year. That was a big jump from the 16-percent he accounted for during his rookie campaign. He has 12.5 sacks in his two competed seasons with the 49ers. That's a lot of productivity for a team that was already in desperate need to improve their pass rush.
"Lynch was very effective in his first full season as a starter, especially as a pass-rusher, and was the only linebacker to earn a positive overall grade last season," said analyst Matt Claassen of Pro Football Focus on Saturday. "He had a 14.1 pass rushing productivity with 62 total pressures, which ranked in the Top 5 among 3-4 outside linebackers and just one spot behind Super Bowl MVP Von Miller."
Lynch was graded by Pro Football Focus as the current team's second best defender based on last season's statistics. He was behind only Ian Williams. There were actually two linebackers with better pass rush grades than Lynch. They were Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong. However, both are competing to play inside next to NaVorro Bowman and neither played significantly last season, which brings their grades into question. The duo combined to play in 368 passing downs whereas Lynch alone was in on 470.
The loss of Lynch for the first quarter of the season will be an opportunity for Eli Harold, Tank Carradine, and Corey Lemonier. Of the three, Carradine was the only one to record a sack last season.
The team's next best graded edge defender, per Pro Football Focus, would be Harold. However, his grade is a significant drop off from Lynch. "Harold earned a neutral grade for the season as a rookie during limited playing time," said Claassen. "Lemonier played a little less, but his performance was considerably worse as he earned negative grades in both run defense and as a pass rusher. On 112 pass rush snaps, he had just seven total pressures."
The 49ers drafted DE DeForest Buckner in the first round this year in hopes of bookending him along the defensive line with last year's first round selection Arik Armstead and generating more of a pass rush than last season. Now, new defensive coordinator Jim O'Niel will have to get more creative for the first quarter of the season.
"With Lynch out, there's a good chance DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstread will be used as edge rushers in obvious passing situations," explains Chis Biderman of Niners Wire. "O'Neil was also experimenting with inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Gerald Hodges blitzing from the edges."
Any way you look at it, the loss of Lynch is a devastating blow to the 49ers and their defensive pass rush. The team's schedule is considered to be among the toughest in the league – if not the toughest – and a loss like this right out of the gate puts even more pressure on the team's new coaching staff.