Naturally with a new regime, not all the players brought in by the previous front office are guaranteed to carry over – even high-profile ones.
Many of them from 2016 and seasons prior are already gone.
And edge defender Aaron Lynch, despite a wealth of physical talent and 14 career sacks in 37 games (19 starts), is one of those remaining on-the-fence players; whether he doesn’t make the final cut due to general manager John Lynch and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh wanting a fresh start with their younger, hand-picked players, a problem of motivation and conditioning, or him getting bested in training camp.
But, because of what he is and what the 49ers are trying to do defensively, there should be a world of intrigue around Aaron Lynch in camp and preseason. He is a raw talent at a position of need during a time of transition.
There’s a case to be made for his hidden or yet-to-be-revealed value to the team:
(1) Lynch was a college defensive lineman on two occasions (Notre Dame, and South Florida). And not just an end, but also kicking inside to take snaps at defensive tackle where he took on guards and centers. So, having spent his four-year NFL career to date as a multifaceted 3-4 outside linebacker, he’s had very different responsibilities and has not quite had a chance to stick to the downhill role that made him such a highly regarded prospect. That will change in 2017.
(2) There was no substantial investment made at the LEO position, a critical role on this new line. Saleh, the coordinator, described the LEO as the “premier pass rusher,” and without mentioning him by name, illustrated a player that fit both Lynch’s build and abilities. That depiction of an outside pass rusher was not attained in the draft, nor was it addressed in free agency. Nobody on the line or linebacking corps compares physically to Lynch or offers what he does. His skill set is unique to the team, and more specific, to that renovating four-man line. His abilities fulfill a required component to optimize the effectiveness of that D-line, particularly on passing downs.
That all may make Aaron Lynch the biggest sleeper on the 49ers heading into camp.
Winding back the clock on Aaron Lynch, the draft prospect
He went No. 150 overall to the 49ers, but from purely an athletic perspective, Lynch had early-round ability coming out of the 2013 NFL Draft.
The 6-foot-6, then-249-pound prospect attended Notre Dame in 2011 as a 4-star recruit, racking up 33 tackles and 5.5 sacks as a freshman for the Fighting Irish. But due to wanting to play closer to home, he transferred to South Florida for his final season and had to sit out a year in between. In 2013, his lone season for the Bulls, he recorded 29 tackles, 11.5 for a loss and 5.0 sacks, maintaining steady production despite the transition, and keeping himself in the conversation as a mid-rounder with big upside.
Not bad for 24 career NCAA games spread out over three years.
The consensus was if Lynch broke through, he’d be a terror, and that possibility still lingers, which is why the 49ers can’t afford to cast him out just yet.
As an attacking edge rusher, his most noticeable trait is his freakishly long 34-inch arms and surprising power. When it comes to stacking and shedding, it’s helped him keep shorter-armed guards, centers and even tackles at bay before tossing them aside and finishing the play. He's good getting his hands on the chest of the lineman and driving his legs, with an ability to suddenly rip to break free.
He can do this rushing from any technique, which makes for a nice option for a team needing a disruptor.
Looping in from the outside, Lynch can also bend and drive to the quarterback with raw effort, using his overwhelming size and strength. When he’s really getting after it, being relentless, he’s tough to stop altogether—those legs keep pumping and he can stay balanced until he affects the pocket.
And that has since translated to the NFL level:
Again here vs. the New York Giants:
In addition to his bull rushing prowess, he can also move laterally to challenge the footwork and reaction speed of the offensive line. It’s shown on his stunts.
This is a clip of Lynch at Notre Dame twisting inside, using only his athleticism to get to the Florida State quarterback. He does not engage, showing smooth un-wasted movement en route to the QB. You’ll see the offensive tackle quickly loses Lynch and the center is too late to lend support.
And as a long, lean prototype, he can also get skinny shooting interior gaps, as seen here vs. FSU:
So, there’s a package of tools to work with and it makes him a balanced pass rusher.
Aside from the other three first-rounders, Lynch is a going to be a real treat as a pet project for new defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina; and Saleh, as well. This clocks what Lynch is, from NFL.com:
In addition to opportunity on the field, he always required strong, consistent influence from the coaching staff, which he may finally have now.
And from a scheme standpoint, Lynch is going back to what made him an interesting and coveted defensive weapon in the first place. He’ll be a hand-in-the-ground player again, and his coverage snaps will all be but taken away and converted into pass-rush snaps. That should narrow his focus and ultimately increase his production.
What the 49ers have, and don’t have, on the D-line
The latest selection of Stanford's Solomon Thomas marked San Francisco third consecutive first-round pick spent on a Pac-12 defensive lineman. And now, together, the trio of top-20 picks of Thomas, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead make up three likely starters of four possible down linemen in 2017.
And as lethal as they may be, the 49ers still don't have a LEO or pure pass-rusher.
Thomas, Buckner and Armstead similar strengths: they're broad players used to taking on double teams, they excel inside, can win with power, but their surprising quickness and technique in addition to that is what vaulted them to such high first-round status. They can also all play each other’s positions, and will probably rotate as such.
Lynch, however, looks like the fourth-most gifted defensive lineman of the entire defensive line group and is a totally different type of player. Of that group, he is more of the linebacker type in that he could stand up. And with that lighter body and speed coming down on the D-line, his best use is as a pass-rush specialist.
And it's an area he's experienced success.
Lynch was Pro Football Focus' Secret Superstar before the start of the 2015 season, given his impact as a rookie. He 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 his second NFL season, the only season of three accrued in which he had more than three starts (13), Lynch was the 8th ranked pass rusher in terms of productivity, according to the metrics over at PFF. In 230 pass-rush snaps, he generated 38 pressures, making him only slightly less efficient than the likes of Elvis Dumervil, James Harrison and Michael Bennett at the time.
He had a career-best 6.5 sacks that year.
This picture painted of a talented pass-rush specialist functioning around three first-rounders that all demand the utmost respect from the opposing offensive lines could equate to productivity from Lynch.
What to expect
An unmotivated player in the wrong scheme on a losing team could mask a Pro Bowl level talent, and it’s possible that is what happened with Lynch. Reverting to a scheme he’s familiar with, and a role he's excelled in, combined with a breath of fresh air in the building from the new regime, could lead to a breakthrough.
“There’s no doubt Aaron’s going in the right direction for us,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said.
“He came in in the offseason, we challenged him hard with just the way we worked and stuff. He hasn’t shied away from any of it,” coach added. “He’s jumped in on all of our stuff…he’s gotten better each day. He’s gotten more in shape each day and I’m seeing it on the field each day.”
Shanahan, thus far, appears to tell it like it is. If so, this would be a good first step for Lynch as he sets his sights on proving his worth during times of change.
It’s also very possible the patterns we’ve seen with Lynch since his college heyday are merely representative of who he is—a player with more talent than “want to” that does just enough to stick around the NFL and never finds himself consistently among the above-average pass-rushers.
But with his well-documented potential and flashes on the field, if he fully applies himself, it's possible he has his best season yet in terms of sacks. Lynch could even set himself up for a halfway decent contract, either with the 49ers or another team.
And he seems engaged now.
“LEO is a lot of damn fun, so yeah, I like it a lot,” Lynch said, per The San Jose Mercury News. “You get to set the edge and go get the quarterback.”
If nothing else, Aaron Lynch is worth paying close attention to this year because of his often-forgotten upside, the cathartic front office changes, and because of the 49ers’ immediate schematic need for what he offers.
Media courtesy Niners Nation, USATSI, AP, Elite Athlete Management, Grantland