Since his rookie season of 2014, outside linebacker Aaron Lynch has given the 49ers an off-and-on pass-rush presence.
As a rookie in 2014, he had six sacks in 16 games – but just three starts – and then had 6½ in 2015 as a full-time starter. Last season he played just seven games and the defense missed his contributions. He had just 1½ sacks.
Now, heading into the 2017 season, a healthy and fit Lynch could play a major role in the 49ers’ revamped defense under coordinator Robert Saleh, a 4-3 hybrid scheme similar to the one used in Seattle. Lynch could thrive as a pass rusher, specifically, with a front line that now has No. 1 pick Solomon Thomas with previous top picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, and former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster on the outside.
But even after the improved roster from free agency and the draft, the analytic website Pro Football Focus says the 49ers’ biggest area of need may still be an edge pass rusher. One of PFF’s concerns, too, is that Lynch may not be in good shape.
“Despite drafting Thomas with the No. 3 overall pick, edge rusher remains a major need for the 49ers,” PFF wrote this week. “A roster with several holes, having a pass-rushing specialist will help ease a lot of poor play elsewhere. Thomas is more of a ‘tweener,’ as he’ll play base DE and kick inside on sub-packages.
“Ahmad Brooks has played poorly the last three seasons and Aaron Lynch reportedly showed up to (recent team sessions) 20 pounds overweight. If Lynch can get back to 2015 form, the position is less of an issue, but his struggles in 2016 and reporting to camp overweight are not good signs. The 49ers are in a long-term rebuilding mode and filling all their holes will take time.”
For all the ups and downs Lynch has had in his three seasons with the 49ers, there is one key factor: he just turned 24. If he’s fit and playing at the right weight – he’s listed as 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds – Lynch could play a big role in Saleh’s defense in 2017. His best years could be ahead.
Saleh, in fact, recently told a reporter that he was a fan of Lynch’s in that 2014 draft, when Saleh was at Jacksonville. In San Francisco, Saleh indicated he plans to use Lynch as a pass-rush specialist at defensive end in passing situations.
“He’s on the defensive line,” said Saleh. “We’re going to try to keep his hand in the ground at all times. … Now it’s a matter of us trying to work with him to best utilize what he’s, in my mind, designed to do and that’s get after the passer.”