• Travis Rapp

Three to Kwon: Odds on Who Fills Alexander’s Defensive Role

Image Credit: Bay Area News Group

Linebacker Kwon Alexander has been labeled an overpriced off season addition, a much needed fireball on the defense, Fred Warner’s much needed sidekick, a missed tackle waiting to happen, and one of the final keys to putting the San Francisco 49ers’ defense over the top. Now he simply has the label of “IR” next to his name. His first season with the 49ers only lasted eight games, but oh what an eight games it was.

The addition of Alexander along with Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, and Dre Greenlaw to the team’s defense has been seen by most as a great success. According to Pro Football Focus, over the first half of the season Alexander had 34 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, a half sack, 1 forced fumble, 4 passes defended, and 1 interception. Now, those numbers don’t jump off the page and smack you in the face with how important Alexander has been to the 49ers defense.

Remember: Alexander, Warner, and Greenlaw are playing behind a defensive line that is eating up opponents, leaving less tackles for the LB group to make. Warner, the 49ers’ leading tackler, isn’t even on pace to get 100 tackles this season.

Filling Alexander’s “Will” LB duties should fall on rookie Greenlaw, who has shown to be a monster in the run game, playing sideline to sideline with the type of speed a young LB must possess in today’s game. This also means that instead of coming off the field on third down, Greenlaw will stay on the field and have more pass defense responsibilities. Warner, who has not been very stellar in the run defense category this year (a PFF grade of 29.7), will have to pick up his tackling on that front to help the team overcome this setback.

Greenlaw’s spot at “Sam” is open and will be filled by Azeez Al-Shaair (who is currently listed with the first team on the team’s website), Mark Nzeocha, or a combination of both. The 49ers also promoted Elijah Lee to the 53-man roster when placing Alexander on the injured reserve list, but since he was activated almost a full week after Alexander was injured on Halloween, it doesn’t seem very likely that he will see extended time anywhere besides special teams on Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks. If Al-Shaair or Nzeocha don’t show they are up to the task, then it’s possible that fans could see Lee start at Will and Greenlaw moved back to Sam for first and second down, and then Greenlaw moved back to Will for third down passing situations, but that is probably pretty unlikely.

Most likely, we will see Greenlaw play pretty much every single defensive snap for the rest of the regular and post seasons at the Will LB position. This means the fifth-round draft pick out of Arkansas must step up and perform, as his athleticism should allow him to.

In a David Bonilla article for 49ers Webzone, Nick Bosa says of his teammate Alexander, “It’s definitely a huge, huge loss…As a defense, we’re just going to have to pick it up. Every single player is going to have to play a little better. Obviously, [Dre Greenlaw] is going to fill in, but it’s going to be a group effort to bring that energy because he really does bring the energy for us.” This is what most people talk about when looking at the Alexander injury, not how they are going to replace his performance on the field, but rather how are they going to replace his energy in the huddle, locker room, and in practices.

Alexander has taken on the role of the defensive hype man, something that team has not really had since Patrick Willis hung up the shoulder pads a few years back. Who will fill that role now? With head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch focusing on treating the organization as a family, fans should fully expect Alexander to fill his own role in the locker room and on the sidelines once he heals up from surgery. Who will fill that role on the field? We’ll just have to wait until Monday to see who the defense’s next hype-man-up is.

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