Would he be traded or would he be cut? One thing seemed certain as the 2014 season drew to a close: Linebacker Ahmad Brooks’ tenure with the 49ers would end after seven seasons.
The year began with the hope that Brooks, coming off a Pro Bowl season, would compensate for the loss of the team’s other starting linebacker, Aldon Smith, who was suspended for the first nine games. Instead, Brooks reported to training camp overweight. He was benched twice, once for a Week 10 sideline tirade with the man who took over as the 49ers’ coach, Jim Tomsula.
He was cited in a police investigation involving a December incident at then-teammate Ray McDonald’s home. And he didn’t play well, or at least failed to elevate his game, while young outside linebacker Aaron Lynch ate into his snaps in the second half of the season.
When Brooks was shelved for the last two games because of a dislocated thumb – “I could have played,” he said – he figured it was a signal his time with the 49ers was over.
But it also was the point he began his comeback.
I feel faster. I feel not so bloated. I’m able to flip my hips and turn the corner if I want to. It makes a difference.
Ahmad Brooks, 49ers linebacker
Brooks’ weight was an issue in 2014. The 49ers wanted him at 268 pounds. He reported to training camp in July at 280 pounds.
“I didn’t really know that I was gaining weight last year,” he said. “A lot of that had to do with me not watching what I eat, hanging out on the weekends and stuff like that. It accumulated and one thing led to another, you know, and I gained some weight.”
In January, however, he got serious about his diet. He started doing Pilates and joined a hot-yoga class. He was a mainstay during the 49ers’ offseason program. And when he stepped on the scale for the first day of training camp last week, he not only hit his target weight but had replaced last year’s flab with lean muscle.
“I feel faster. I feel not so bloated,” Brooks said. “I’m able to flip my hips and turn the corner if I want to. It makes a difference.”
Those across the line of scrimmage can attest.
The 49ers’ offensive line has struggled early in training camp, in no small part because the team’s starting outside linebackers, Smith and Brooks, appear poised for bounce-back seasons. The hope is that a trio of comebacks, including inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is returning from a serious knee injury, can make up for the team’s prominent offseason departures and recapture the defense’s previous dominance.
General manager Trent Baalke said there “was never any real thoughts” about parting ways with Brooks, and he dismissed last year’s report that the 49ers were ready to ship Brooks to Cleveland until the Browns backed out of the deal.
“Like I said last year during the season, there were teams that inquired, there was a report on one team that said we had a deal done and they backed out, which is false,” Baalke said. “But Ahmad has been with us a long time. And I think we would say last year was a down year for him. I think you guys can see by the way he’s come back, the type of shape he’s in, the focus he has right now, he’s been (sharp).”
Brooks said he had offseason meetings with Tomsula and CEO Jed York, and a frank discussion with Baalke about his role on a defense that lost three 30-something players in Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and McDonald.
Trent said, ‘You’re a leader now. You’re not a kid anymore; you’re a grown man. You need to step up and be a leader for this team.’ So I’m taking that approach right now
Ahmad Brooks after talking with 49ers general manager Trent Baalke
At 31, Brooks is six years older than the team’s next oldest outside linebacker, Aldon Smith. Rookie Eli Harold has said he looks up to Brooks because they both played at Virginia and Brooks’ picture is “everywhere” there.
“Trent said, ‘You’re a leader now. You’re not a kid anymore; you’re a grown man. You need to step up and be a leader for this team,’” Brooks said. “So I’m taking that approach right now.”
Brooks declined to talk about the ongoing police investigation of the incident at McDonald’s home that sparked a civil suit in which a woman claimed Brooks sexually assaulted her after she slipped on a wet swimming-pool deck and was knocked unconscious.
The investigation has been open for nearly nine months and no criminal charges have been filed.
“I can’t talk about it,” Brooks said. “I’m just going to let everything play out.”
He said there are no lingering issues between him and Tomsula, who as the defensive-line coach last year bore Brooks’ sideline wrath when he sent Lynch and Smith, in his first game back from his suspension, into the game at outside linebacker.
“It was heat of the moment. And I just felt like being (a jerk). You know what I’m saying?” Brooks said. “Tomsula understands. We’ve got a relationship of seven or eight years. So he understands me and I understand him. And he accepted my apology. And that’s what makes him such a good person. He’s able to communicate with his players and he’s down to earth. And he’ll talk to anybody, everybody.”