Secret Superstars: San Francisco 49ers
Few teams have had a core of linebackers as talented in recent years as the San Francisco 49ers. It’s no surprise that this second-year outside linebacker would get overlooked, especially with Chris Borland grabbing the headlines in 2014. But rest assured, the 49ers had more than one play-making rookie on defense last year. Meet our newest Secret Superstar, OLB Aaron Lynch.
At 6-foot-5, north of 270 pounds, Lynch certainly looked the part of a future NFL player and was highly recruited. He chose to play at Notre Dame and made his mark as a freshman, playing in all 12 games and recording five and a half sacks. His potent combination of speed and power on the edge was undeniable, though questions about his maturity followed him. He decided to transfer to South Florida prior to his sophomore season but was forced to sit out a year after being denied a waiver to play immediately by the NCAA. Back on the field as a junior, Lynch got off to a slow start, but finished the season strong, totaling six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
Lynch was drafted in the fifth-round by the 49ers, 150th overall. Talented enough to go in the first few rounds, concerns about his motivation and motor dropped him down the draft board of many teams.
Impact Out of the Gate
Lynch was impressive in camp and received plenty of opportunities in the preseason. He saw his first preseason action at home against Denver, but had a rough debut. He failed to create any quarterback disruptions and was flagged for a penalty. He rebounded in a big way the following week at home against San Diego in the team’s third preseason game, playing the run well with three run stops and getting after the quarterback for three pressures – two hurries and a sack. He put together another strong effort in the final exhibition contest, and finished the preseason with a cumulative +3.3 pass rush grade, eight-best among all OLBs.
Lynch carried the positive momentum over to the 2014 regular season and contributed right away. He found a home as a sub-package pass-rusher starting in Week 1, rushing primarily from the defensive left side (291 of 305 attempts), tasked with beating the opposition’s right tackle. Quick off the edge, Lynch racked up 41 total pressures (six sacks, eight hits, and 27 hurries) as a rookie and was a Top-10 rusher among OLBs from an efficiency standpoint with a Pass Rushing Productivity mark of 10.3. In limited opportunities against the run, Lynch was average among OLBs as a run-stopper.
One of his strongest earlier performances came in Week 4 vs Philadelphia, showcasing both his power and speed in route to the quarterback. At the 1:48 mark in the first quarter, Lynch beats the right tackle outside and turns the corner to deliver what appears at first will be a big hit, but he loses his footing and has to settle for a hurry. Two series later, Lynch wins his matchup with the veteran Todd Herremans again, but this time with a bull rush. Herremans is unable to anchor after getting pushed into the backfield, forcing the quarterback to scramble and fire an awkward throw for an incompletion. Probably his most decisive win of the day came in the fourth with 13:23 remaining. After a quick first-step outside, Lynch darts inside and beats Herremans almost instantly to get a hit on the QB and blow up the play. His +2.5 pass rush grade in this game was sixth-best among OLBs that week, behind the likes of Justin Houston and Terrell Suggs.
Getting the Start
Lynch received the starting nod in Weeks 10 and 11, with Ahmad Brooks essentially benching himself because of his displeasure with the OLB rotation, and showed he could get it done on an every-down basis. He went wire to wire against the Saints in Week 10 and played well, but was really a menace in Week 11 at the Giants. He bullied back back-up right tackle Charles Brown most of the day, piling up eight total pressures, including a sack. At his most dominant, Lynch rag-dolled Brown to the ground, leaving an open path to the QB for an easy sack (2Q, 1:04). He was competitive in the run-game as well, getting in on a nice run stop at the 1:17 mark of the third quarter after putting a nice swim move on the lead fullback.
With a year of NFL experience under his belt, Lynch enters 2015 hoping to make a big second-year jump. He may begin the season again in a similar sub-package role with two high-priced veterans in Aldon Smith and Brooks ahead of him on the depth chart, but look for Lynch to push them for playing time.