Note: I'll be writing about each of the 49ers' positions groups as is typical before training camp. This year, however, there's a catch. I'll be ranking them in order of strongest to weakest. First up ...
Recap: This wasn't an impressive group last season. Aldon Smith was suspended for nine games. When he returned, he was a shadow of his former self, notching only two sacks -- both in the same contest -- in the final seven games. Ahmad Brooks had an opportunity to shine during Smith's absence. Instead, he was overweight and, his heroics at the end of the Saints game not withstanding, had a ho-hum season that ended with six sacks and two benchings. The lone bright spot was rookie Aaron Lynch, a fifth-round draft pick who played like a late first rounder. With so many suspensions, Lynch started three games, played nearly 50 percent of the defensive snaps and finished tied with Brooks for the team lead with six sacks. Dan Skuta started nine games at outside linebacker and finished with five sacks and three forced fumbles. He was signed by the Jaguars in free agency.
Outlook: At the risk of going hyperbolic, the 49ers never have been better -- or at least deeper -- at the position. For the first time since his rookie season, Smith has no legal matters hanging over him and, perhaps more significant, is heading into the final season of his contract. That is, he has a high level of motivation. Brooks, meanwhile, may have suspected he was on the trade block this offseason and also seems as motivated as he's been in quite some time. After ballooning into the high (high!) 200-lb. range last year, which drew public comments from then defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, he's back down to his ideal playing weight in the low 260s. They likely will start at their familiar positions with Smith on the right and Brooks on the left. Lynch and third-round draft pick Eli Harold will provide depth. Corey Lemonier, himself a third-round pick in 2013, is fighting for a roster spot after a sack-less season a year ago. Undrafted rookie Marcus Rush also will line up at outside linebacker. Free-agent pickup Nick Bellore played there in the spring but is more of a kickoff coverage specialist.
Question marks: Smith will be without his partner in crime, Justin Smith, this season. The tandem worked extremely well together with Justin Smith's strength and veteran savvy providing pass-rush avenues for Aldon Smith. (Just ask Kevin Gilbride and Jeff Fisher). It remains to be seen whether Aldon Smith can develop the same chemistry with Glenn Dorsey and Tank Carradine, the two players he likely will spend the most time playing beside this season. ... The legal investigation regarding the incident at Ray McDonald's house last year is still open. The 49ers do not believe Brooks will be implicated, but until that investigation is closed it remains a distraction. ... Lynch did not take part in many spring sessions due to a hamstring injury.
Person of interest: It has to be Smith, who has put the franchise in terrible positions the previous two years but who now has an opportunity to cash in with a huge contract. Does this get done during the season? Does he shop himself on the open market in March? Does he give the 49ers a loyalty discount? One result from the 49ers' spate of retirements is that they now have more salary-cap space than they expected. That space will roll over to next season. Is it enough to sign Smith? His 2015 season -- on and off the field -- will provide the answers.