Before the unexpected retirements of Justin Smith and Patrick Willis last offseason – and months away from the abrupt end to Aldon Smith’s tenure with the 49ers – it appeared as if Ahmad Brooks’ career with the organization was winding down.
Brooks earned Pro Bowl recognition after the 2012 and ’13 seasons. But his status was in question after his production slipped to six sacks in 2014. Plus, at the time, his scheduled salary seemed exorbitant.
Brooks turned 33 on Monday. And while his sack total only rose from six in 2014 to 6.5 last season, it’s now difficult to view him as overpaid.
All indications are that Brooks’ spot on the 49ers is safe for at least another season, in part, because the 49ers simply do not have proven, young pass-rushers ready to usurp him on the depth chart. After the 2014 season, the 49ers lost so many of the team's core defensive players through unexpected attrition that they could not afford to part ways with Brooks.
Now, an argument is even there to be made that Brooks is underpaid.
The salary cap has risen more then $32 million since the eve of the 2014 league year. A salary de-escalator tied to Brooks' 2015 sack numbers reduces his scheduled salary this season to approximately $4 million.
As it turns out, based on the first couple days of NFL free agency, that is a bargain for a pass-rusher who can generate about a half-dozen sacks in a season.
After all, the New York Giants signed Olivier Vernon to a five-year contract that averages $17 million annually with $40 million fully guaranteed. The Raiders secured Bruce Irvin to a four-year deal at $9.25 million a year with $14.5 million fully guaranteed.
Vernon, 25, who had the luxury of playing on the same Miami Dolphins defensive front as Ndamukong Suh (not to mention seven games with Cameron Wake), recorded 7.5 sacks last season. Irvin, 28, broke into the NFL with eight sacks as a rookie. Since then, his numbers have fallen to two sacks in 2013, 6.5 in '14 and 5.5 last season.
Even if the 49ers were tempted to get younger and less-expensive at outside linebacker, they do not appear to have the luxury of casting aside Brooks right now.
Brooks and Aaron Lynch were far-and-away the 49ers' best pass-rushers last season. The team’s young linebackers, Corey Lemonier and Eli Harold, combined for zero sacks.
The 49ers could have made a splash in free agency and replaced Brooks. And, certainly, Vernon and Irvin are younger than Brooks and should have more seasons ahead of them. But they were far more expensive and not nearly productive enough to justify it.