San Francisco 49ers

49ers can improve pass rush from outside linebackers in rich draft

Ohio State lineman Joey Bosa (97) and linebacker Raekwon McMillian (5) chase Virginia Tech receiver Isaiah Ford (1) during an NCAA college football game in Columbus, Ohio.
Ohio State lineman Joey Bosa (97) and linebacker Raekwon McMillian (5) chase Virginia Tech receiver Isaiah Ford (1) during an NCAA college football game in Columbus, Ohio. AP

The scouting combine begins this week, and the 49ers will be busy. They are projected to have a league-high 12 picks and could use help at just about every position. We’ll look at every spot on the team as well as which college prospects might fit with the 49ers.

Outside linebacker

Need level: moderate to high

Under contract: Ahmad Brooks, Tank Carradine, Eli Harold, Corey Lemonier, Aaron Lynch, Marcus Rush

THE SITUATION

Last year at this time the conventional thinking was the 49ers would part ways with Brooks, who was twice benched in 2014, once for a sideline tirade and later for missing a meeting. The team, however, ended up having more salary-cap space than expected and Brooks returned. Edge rushers are difficult to find and teams will put up with a lot of bad behavior when it comes to the position. (See Aldon Smith, Greg Hardy, Randy regory, etc.). The 49ers had only 29 sacks last season – fourth-lowest in the league – and opposing quarterbacks had a 98.1 passer rating.

The 49ers are in a similar situation this year. Brooks only had 6 1/2 sacks, was his usual surly self and sat out a chunk of the team’s game in Chicago after throwing his helmet on the sideline. But he’s under contract for 2016, the team has abundant salary-cap space and the 49ers don’t have a lot of alternatives.

Lynch will start at one of the outside linebacker spots and he is perhaps the 49ers’ best young player on defense. But he’s also dealt with back issues in the past and, like Brooks, finished with just 6 1/2 sacks last season. Harold, a 2015 third-round pick, and Lemonier, a 2013 third-round pick, didn’t have a sack despite 609 snaps between them. But Harold showed progress toward season’s end and the hope is that an offseason in the weight room will add power to his lanky frame.

Carradine, initially cast as a 300-pound defensive lineman, began dropping weight last season and is closer to the 270 pounds at which he was so effective as an edge rusher at Florida State. The plan is to use him off the edge this season, although he still seems best suited as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end, which was his role with the Seminoles.

There are a lot of good pass rushers in the draft, but perhaps none worth the No. 7 pick. The best player who likely will be available at that point, Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, has a litany of off-field issues and doesn’t fit the long-limbed profile general manager Trent Baalke has preferred. The draft is otherwise full of 275-pound ‘tweener types who will require plenty of evaluation. Are they agile enough to become outside linebackers in San Francisco’s scheme? Or are they better suited – like Carradine – to be defensive ends on some other squad’s 4-3 defense?

THE 2016 CLASS

Joey Bosa, Ohio State: Some teams will see him as a 4-3 defensive end, but Bosa played from a two-point stance at times with the Buckeyes and has the combination of quickness, power and intelligence to play outside linebacker for a 3-4 team. He is listed at 275 pounds, and you wonder whether he would benefit, as an outside linebacker, from dropping into the 260-pound range.

Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky: Spence has similar relentlessness and power to Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, but he doesn’t have Miller’s long arms (Spence’s measured a stubby 31 inches) and he was booted out of Ohio State for repeatedly failing drug tests. After their ordeal with Aldon Smith, that background should be too risky for the 49ers.

Shaq Lawson, Clemson: Both he and teammate Kevin Dodd are big-bodied, 275-pound defensive ends who spent a fair amount of time playing from a two-point stance. Dodd, who shined in the national championship, ght be the better fit for San Francisco. He’s taller and more agile than Lawson and, more important, might be available when the 49ers pick in the second round.

Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State: If the 49ers stay pat in the second round, there’s a chance Ogbah could be available. He has the size and power of the team’s former first-round pick, Smith, but is more stiff and muscle bound. Still, Ogbah had 24 sacks over the last two seasons.

Kyler Fackrell, Utah State: Fackrell already is adept at dropping into coverage after playing in the pass-happy Mountain West. He’s a versatile athlete who can dip his shoulders and cut the corner to the quarterback. A creative defensive coordinator might be able to move him around the field like the Packers do with Clay Matthews Jr.

Victor Ochi, Stonybrook: Any small-school NFL prospect should dominate his college opponents, and Ochi did that last season. He also looked like he belonged during the East-West Shrine all-star game in January. He has the motor and the arm length – 33 1/2 inches – Baalke likes and could be a good mid-round choice.

MONDAY: The 49ers’ options at quarterback.

TUESDAY: Which running backs will help Hyde?

WEDNESDAY: The 49ers have few proven receivers.

THURSDAY: Chip Kelly favors WRs over TEs.

FRIDAY: Three spots up for grabs on o-line.

SATURDAY: The 49ers D-line must be restocked.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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