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In 2010 when the 49ers drafted NaVorro Bowman in the third round they hoped that he and Patrick Willis would be the 1-2 punch at the heart of the defense for the next decade, but that plan was scuttled thanks to injuries.
In 2018, the 49ers drafted Fred Warner in the third round and hoped that he and 2017 first round pick Reuben Foster would be the next Willis and Bowman at the heart of the defense, but the plans were again scuttled this time due to Foster’s poor judgement.
Enter Kwon Alexander.
The 49ers moved quickly to sign Kwon Alexander once the free agency window opened and will pair him with middle linebacker Fred Warner in hopes of creating that 1-2 punch at the center of the defense, but is Alexander the right long-term fit?
Why it’s a good fit:
By signing Alexander, the 49ers are looking to buy their way out of the Foster debacle by replacing him with someone who has some of the same skills and brings more of a veteran presence and yet is four months younger than Foster. Clearly the 49ers front office places a high value on speed; it, along with a wanton disregard for his own personal safety, was Foster’s calling card and the same goes for Alexander: he plays with “speed and violence,” and has ability to “make people do stupid things before they want to” as head coach Kyle Shanahan said during Alexander’s introductory press conference.
The ability to force the opponent to speed up his timing is something that has been missing from the defenses in the Shanahan era and resulted in an NFL record low for turnovers in 2018. Alexander has 6 interceptions and 6 forced fumbles in just 46 career games; he also has the ability to put pressure on the quarterback, racking up 7 sacks.
In addition to the tangible things that he brings like creating turnovers, Kwon Alexander also brings leadership to what is still a young roster. During his time in Tampa Bay, Alexander was a vocal leader and a two-time captain and it’s not difficult to see why; during his introductory press conference a question was asked about being a leader in the locker room on a young team and he said:
“We're going to try to make sure those guys are on point, studying film, have the same mindset to be great. I'm going to tell them whatever it takes, you know. Whatever it takes, you can do it. Put your mind to it. You're going to go out here and get the job done, win championships, and we're going to do our thing.”
Why its not a good fit:
With the 49ers making a change to the Wide-9 technique and aligning their defensive ends on the outside shoulder of the tight end or tackle or who ever happens to be on the end of the line of scrimmage for the offense (my colleague Travis Rapp breaks down the Wide-9 in detail, here), the running game is going to be funneled back inside to the linebackers placing a premium on tackling. Since his rookie season, Alexander is second in the NFL in missed tackles (only Telvin Smith has more). Pairing Alexander and Warner together could be problematic for the 49ers defense because Warner also struggled with missed tackles during his rookie campaign.
There are also injury concerns with Kwon Alexander. Alexander has played in just 71 percent of his team’s games, and since coming into the league in 2015 he has only played in all 16 games once. Alexander’s 2018 season lasted only six games due to a torn ACL and he underwent surgery in November to repair the damaged ligament. Alexander will join new teammates Jerick McKinnon and Jimmy Garoppolo in rehabbing ACL tears. How quickly Alexander can return to form remains to be seen; he has posted videos of his rehab on social media but has not offered specifics when asked about a timetable for his return. Alexander’s game is predicated on speed and if he is slow to recover or is not able to recover fully then this pairing will not work as planned.
Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner are not complementary pieces in all aspects of their games as they share many of the same traits. Each has a game that is built on speed, is good in pass coverage and both struggle with missed tackles. However, they are complementary in other aspects. Warner is a quiet and cerebral player and Alexander is much more of a vocal leader who plays a see-and-hit-type of game. Both players are young and capable of so much growth and are still years away from their prime. If Alexander and Warner can fix their tackling issues, this a pairing could produce lots of highlights (and hopefully victories) for years to come.
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