San Francisco 49ers

Combine cometh: A look at 49ers’ past, present and future at outside linebacker

Florida pass rusher Dante Fowler could pique Trent Baalke’s interest in the first round of the May draft.
Florida pass rusher Dante Fowler could pique Trent Baalke’s interest in the first round of the May draft. The Associated Press

The annual scouting combine begins next week, which will turn the discussion to the 49ers’ offseason needs. Next up: outside linebacker, which won an award for “Worst Drama” in 2014.

Past: No position on the 49ers roster had more turbulence last year than outside linebacker. Aldon Smith missed the first nine games due to a suspension while the other longtime starter, Ahmad Brooks, was benched for nearly two games after A.) lashing out at then-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and B.) missing a meeting. The two combined for eight sacks, by far the lowest total since Brooks became a starter in 2011. (2011: 21 combined sacks; 2012: 26; 2013: 17).

What saved the position was rookie Aaron Lynch, a fifth-round pick who contributed six sacks and who improved in run and pass support throughout the season. Lynch, in fact, played more defensive snaps (514) than any other outside linebacker after Brooks (603). Dan Skuta also was essential in playing 386 snaps, coming up with 33 tackles – tops for a 49ers’ outside linebacker – and forcing three fumbles. Second-year player Corey Lemonier played 143 snaps and had 10 tackles. Lemonier did not build off a promising start to his rookie season. The best you can say about him is that he was better at the end of the 2014 season than the beginning.

Present: The 49ers picked up Smith’s so-called fifth-year option, which means he is set to earn $9.75 million – second only to quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the 49ers – in 2015. The 49ers can part ways with him before March 10 at no cost if there are any more off-the-field problems. He becomes a free agent in 2016 if he is on the roster this year. Meanwhile, Brooks will count $7 million toward the salary cap. Skuta becomes a free agent next month.

Future: Together Smith and Brooks are scheduled to count $17 million against the cap. That’s for a pair that combined for eight sacks and a whole lot of discipline last season. Which is to say: It would not be a surprise if one – more likely it would be Brooks – is let go during the offseason. If that’s the case, the team would enter training camp with Smith and Lynch as the starters. That’s a solid duo, but depth would be an issue. Skuta likely will receive attention on the open market (the Bears suddenly make sense). If he goes, that would leave Lemonier as the only backup at the right and left linebacker spots.

Trent Baalke has drafted several players at the position – Smith, Lemonier and Lynch being the most notable – and they all fit the same mold. They are tall, long-armed and powerful former college defensive ends. Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Missouri’s Shane Ray likely will be out of the 49ers’ reach in the May draft. Others like Florida’s Dante Fowler, UCLA’s Owamagbe Odighizua or Mississippi State’s Preston Smith may be available in the middle of the first round (Fowler) or on Day 2.

Combine workout schedule:

Friday, Feb. 20: Specialists, offensive linemen, tight ends

Saturday, Feb. 21: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers

Sunday: Feb. 22: Defensive linemen, linebackers

Monday, Feb. 23: Defensive backs

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Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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