It’s been easy for Ahmad Brooks to be the forgotten man, the linebacker in the shadows behind Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and 2011 rookie Aldon Smith.
As part of a sensational linebacking corps, Brooks often just does his job and watches as the others collect accolades.
But Brooks, 27, is constantly striving to improve and is coming off a season and offseason of excellence that may have him on the cusp of an even better season than the one he had in 2011 when he set career highs in starts (16), tackles (59) and sacks (7).
In February, Brooks signed a six-year deal, worth $17 million guaranteed – and as much as $45 million – to remain as an outside linebacker in San Francisco.
And since the end of last season he’s put himself through rigorous offseason conditioning and team workouts. Even with a new contract, he’s taken nothing for granted.
“Every year you’ve got to prove yourself and make a statement, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” said Brooks in May to Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
Brooks’ attitude, plus his play last season under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, has teammates and some team observers believing Brooks may be poised for a breakout season.
When Mike Sando of ESPN asked 49ers safety Donte Whitner to name a teammate who might be “primed for a big jump” in 2012, Whitner named Brooks.
“They gave him the contract he was looking for,” said Whitner. “He doesn’t have to go out there and really worry about injury. He’s been getting off the football great (in practices). He is starting to understand coverage concepts of what to do, where to be. The other day, I saw him run down the seam with a wide receiver, covering him man to man, and he looked like a corner.”
Whitner said, too, that the expected emergence of Smith to full-time linebacker rather than situational pass rusher could also help Brooks.
“Smith on the other side will not allow him to get double-teamed,” Whitner told Sando. “With Justin (Smith) and all those guys, he should have double-digit sacks and be up there with the league leaders this year. He’s such a good athlete. He’s a big guy. I believe Ahmad is going to have a really, really big year.”
Before Fangio arrived in San Francisco, Brooks had struggled. The previous defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, compared Brooks’ talent to Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, according to Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle, but Brooks’ performance was inconsistent under Manusky and his effort and commitment were questioned.
Since the arrival of Fangio, however, Brooks blossomed under a coach who believed in him.
“Coaches were always giving me an excuse like, ‘Well, he doesn’t know the defense, he can’t learn the defense.’ That’s a lie,” Brooks told Lynch after signing his new deal in February. “That’s always been a lie. … I’m just happy to get this chance having a coaching staff that believed in me to go out there and showcase my talent.”
This offseason, Brooks has become even more comfortable and well-versed in Fangio’s defensive scheme. After the labor issues of last summer that limited study, this offseason has allowed for full immersion. Now, says Brooks, the defense has the potential for being even better than it was in 2011 when it was among the best in the NFL.
“I feel real confident going into the season,” Brooks says.