49ers: Looking at Aaron Lynch’s Role within DC Robert Saleh’s Defense

Niners Live goes out on a limb and discusses if Aaron Lynch will be a key contributor in this new look 4-3 under defense in San Francisco despite the criticism he has received thus far. And, if not, will Arik Armstead impress and play like a former first round draft pick and win the job?


The filtering process

Sometimes in life, having too many options to choose from when evaluating talent to make roster cuts is more of a daunting task than having fewer options. Having fewer options, the choices are limited as to how you will group your personnel, so it’s less difficult to make roster choices. Having too many choices is when it gets thought-provoking, because now you’re forced to buckled down and figure out which skill sets will best fit your scheme in various situations and make roster decisions on those that don’t quite fit. Robert Saleh is experiencing this as we speak with this reshuffled 49ers defense.

While an abundance of talent and depth is a good problem to have, Robert Saleh and the staff have their work cut out for them and must evaluate and select the players to start and rotate at that pivotal LEO position in his 4-3 under scheme. Either this group will push each other and the cream will rise to the top, or the group will push itself and expose those that can’t get the job done.

By default and scheme fit, Aaron Lynch would seem to be a perfect fit for this position based upon his experience playing 4-3 DE at the University of South Florida and his 2014-2015 production where he racked up 47 tackles, 14 assists and 12.5 sacks. Sadly, his performance and production has been lacking recently. Can he return to form? Yes. Will he? Not sure, but he’ll have to if he wants to remain on this 49ers roster.

Competition is healthy, who wants it more

Lynch has the size, speed, and skill set to excel as an edge force. But at least for now, it’s been reported he came into camp 20 lbs. overweight and now has a tall task to keep him at the top of the depth chart. Aaron Lynch is no stranger to adversity and criticism. As previously discussed in 49ers: Overweight Again? Is it Time to Move on from Aaron Lynch? Lynch was reported to be 20 lbs. overweight and out of shape.

There are a number of talented and able-bodied defenders on this roster suited to play the LEO or pass-rush defensive end (via Matt Maiocco/Niners Live) other than Aaron Lynch. The question is, who wants it more? Who is willing to dig deep, put it all on the line and put in the work necessary to be great and take the lead as the team’s premier pass-rusher? The candidates include names like Arik Armstead (who’s been said to have a fair shot at proving his worth at the spot), Eli Harold, Tank Carradine, Ronald Blair and rookie Pita Taumoepenu. Needless to say, Lynch will have plenty of work to do if he wants to separate himself from the rest in order to be named the starter, or see sufficient playing time.

The bottom line

As stated earlier, this open competition or pressure to be great will either make or break Lynch. Seeing as how there is only room for the best 53, we’ll either see his best, and he makes the team, or we’ll see him possibly playing for a different team with a name other than the 49ers. To be fully objective and transparent, it’s time to get right or get left for Aaron Lynch.

The off the field/character issues, the injuries, and even the fluctuating weight will have to become a thing of the past or he will not be a part of the 49ers’ future. As stated earlier, the possibilities of who starts where would be discussed. Based upon the position battles and open competition in camp, here’s my take on how the defensive line depth chart will pan out in the 4-3 under.

  • LEO (5 tech) – Arik Armstead
  • DT (3T) – DeForrest Buckner
    NT (1T) – D.J. Jones
  • DE (5 tech) – Solomon Thomas (on passing downs Thomas will slide inside to the 1 tech replacing the NT because of his strength and quickness, allowing him to win inside)

The good news is, when focused and playing as such, Lynch is the best edge rusher on the roster 4-3 defensive end and he can indeed produce when he’s dialed in and has the talent and potential to start. The bad news is, and as the saying goes, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” And, as recently discussed at Niners Live in: Don’t Sleep on Arik Armstead Taking Over as the “LEO, Pass-Rusher”, unfortunately for Lynch, there’s plenty of players working hard for this spot on the roster. Including the very talented, hungry, and hard-working former first round pick Arik Armstead who’s eager for his opportunity to prove himself as the best man for the LEO position.

Cam Inman of the Mercury News echoed some of those same sentiments and Lynch himself had a few comments on the subject matter as seen below:

The new-look 49ers need that from Lynch again, or else the job he covets – the “Leo” pass rusher — will belong to someone else, such as emerging candidate Arik Armstead, the 49ers’ 2015 top draft pick.

“Leo is a lot of damn fun, so yeah, I like it a lot,” Lynch said after Tuesday’s organized team activities. “You get to set the edge and get to go get the quarterback.”

“I was committed but I obviously had off-field issues, getting suspended and then getting hurt,” said Lynch, who missed five games with a high-ankle sprain. “I don’t think my mind was in the right place as far as how the season was going.

“I’m working my (butt) off right now trying to do everything they want me to do.”

What he must do is work off another 10 to 20 pounds. Lynch said he “came in heavy” and weighs over 280 pounds, which, however, is not as bad as last year’s scale-shattering mark of nearly 300 pounds.

“I don’t think I took my diet the best I could,” Lynch said. “I was going out places, taking my wife out. I wasn’t eating vegetables and lean meat every day, so I gained weight.”

It’s been said that competition eliminates itself, and we seem to be watching that very situation unfold in front of our eyes. Go out there, line up, and go get the man with the ball, that’s what we need this LEO to do. Personally, (and I think most would agree) I don’t care what the name on the back of the jersey says, as long as they get to give this pass rush CPR and get the job done with efficiency. In terms of Aaron Lynch’s role in this defense? If he doesn’t step it up, he won’t have one because he’ll be buried either on the depth chart or in the free agent market. How it all turns out is up to him. I’m definitely looking forward to watching it all develop though.

As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Kevin Mitchell Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.