The 49ers already were headed to training camp with more question marks than most NFL teams.
The new head coach, Chip Kelly, needs to prove himself after being fired in Philadelphia. The quarterback situation is up in the air. The receiving corps is largely untested after Torrey Smith. The cornerback combinations are still to be determined and the starting inside linebacker spot alongside NaVorro Bowman is open.
Now the 49ers have yet another hurdle to overcome with the four-game suspension of outside linebacker Aaron Lynch to start the 2016 season. Lynch, who tied for the team lead in sacks in 2015 with 6.5, was suspended by the NFL for violating the league's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.
Lynch will be able to participate in training camp practices and exhibition games, but will have to sit out the first four games of the regular season against the Rams, Panthers, Seahawks and Cowboys. He'll be eligible to return to the active roster for the Oct. 6 matchup with the Cardinals.
Lynch was expected to be the starter on one side of the 49ers' 3-4 defensive front opposite veteran Ahmad Brooks. Now this opens the door for second-year man Eli Harold or Corey Lemonier to step up at the start of a new season in a new defensive scheme run by coordinator Jim O'Neil. Harold especially has had a good offseason for the 49ers. He put on more muscle since the end of last season and is now up to 270 pounds -- while also doing plenty of running to be in peak condition and refining his techniques with work with Bowman and safety Antoine Bethea. He believes he's ready for a larger role.
"I'm a competitor," he said recently. "All my life I've wanted to be the best at everything I do. I'm just going to work hard and let the chips fall where they may."
It also could mean more early-season opportunities for Tank Carradine, the former defensive lineman who has lost weight and is now working with the outside linebackers. The 49ers hope the transition will allow Carradine to add some juice to a pass rush that desperately needs to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
As David Fucillo of SB Nation noted, it also opens the door for another outside linebacker to make the opening-day roster, which means players such as Marcus Rush, Lenny Jones and Jason Fanaika now could legitimately earn a spot with a strong training camp.
Lynch, 23, has made an impact his first two seasons with San Francisco. The 49ers hope he'll rebound from the suspension to continue to be a playmaker over the final dozen games.
Said 49ers general manager Trent Baalke in a news release: "We are confident that he will learn from this matter and that he understands what is expected of him moving forward."