The 49ers took the calculated gamble of investing a 2014 fifth-round draft pick in outside linebacker Aaron Lynch.
At that point, Lynch was considered a nothing-to-lose kind of selection. But two years later, he is no longer a luxury. The 49ers were expecting – and in need of -- big things from him.
In his two first two seasons with the 49ers, Lynch proved to be a good player at one of the most important positions in the game. The organization viewed his potential as limitless.
On Friday, the NFL announced Lynch had been suspended for four games without pay for a violation of the NFL’s policy on substances of abuse. He will miss games against Los Angeles, Carolina, Seattle and Dallas.
Lynch will be eligible to return on a short week for a Thursday, Oct. 6 game against Arizona.
[RELATED: NFL suspends 49ers LB Aaron Lynch four games]
According to the NFL’s policy on substances of abuse, a player who has a violation while within Stage Two of the program is subject to a four-game suspension without pay. A second violation while in Stage Two would result in a six-game suspension.
“While disappointed to hear the news regarding Aaron today, we support and respect the league’s decision,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement released on Friday. “We are confident that he will learn from this matter and that he understands what is expected of him moving forward.”
This situation is a jolt for the 49ers – not just for the opening of the 2016 season but for the future. Lynch represents one of the cornerstones for a franchise that needs several of its young players to develop into difference-makers.
On a team with a dearth of proven performers, they needed Lynch to defy all of the pre-draft whispers and handle his business on and off the field.
Widely considered a first- or second-round talent, Lynch dropped into the fifth round due to character concerns and questions about his work ethic.
“Everybody’s right,” Lynch said in May 2014. “I am a first-round talent, but I made some mistakes in my past. And I figured that’s what hurt me a little bit. I’m just so excited that the 49ers came around and got me in the fifth round.”
Then-49ers coach Jim Harbaugh felt comfortable with Lynch after meeting with him. Harbaugh also spoke extensively with South Florida coach Willie Taggert, who served on Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford. But not everyone agreed with the 49ers' selection of Lynch. The former strength and conditioning coach at South Florida lashed out at the 49ers on social media. "Clearly, integrity & character are not a priority," he wrote.
At the time, the 49ers had highly productive veteran starters Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks at outside linebacker. The previous year, the 49ers drafted Corey Lemonier in the third round.
Smith was released last August after his fifth run-in with the law while with the 49ers. Brooks’ production has fallen off as he enters his 11th NFL season at age 32. And Lemonier has recorded one sack in 42 career games. The 49ers' pass rush last season was among the worst in franchise history.
Lynch’s uncertain NFL future is not about this season for the 49ers. He is eligible for a long-term contract extension at the end of the year. Now, it seems unlikely the 49ers would pursue such a deal until they feel assured of his reliability.
At least for the first four games, the 49ers need such players as Eli Harold, Tank Carradine and Lemonier to get pressure on the quarterback or it could get very ugly, very quickly.
There are certainly not high expectations for the 49ers this season. The 49ers finished with a 5-11 record last season, and they did not add any veteran help to inspire optimism for a dramatic improvement.
Instead, the 49ers’ plan is to rely on the recent draft picks and other young players. The organization hopes most of the building blocks are already on the roster.
Even if the victories are difficult to achieve this season, the 49ers hope enough progress is made in 2016 to set up the team for success in 2017.
That is why Lynch’s setback is such a huge blow.
To be sure, his suspension impacts the 49ers’ first four games of the upcoming season. But more unsettling for the 49ers is what it could mean to their blueprint for the future.