Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Following up our look at the 2019 defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers, and what their impact and contracts might mean for the 2020 roster, the rest of the front seven looks a little bit more straightforward. The 49ers linebacker group involves fewer moving parts, and requires a lot less thinking, both contractually and statistically.
The 49ers beefed up what was a rather leaky linebacker group last offseason by signing the legendary lightning bolt Kwon Alexander away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and drafting Dre Greenlaw in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. Alexander was signed to partner with the rising defensive star Fred Warner Jr. to hold down two of the three starting LB positions, with Azeez Al-Shaair, Michael Nzeocha, and Elijah Lee battling it out for the third starting LB spot. Although that didn’t exactly happen, it would appear that head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh couldn’t have fallen into a better situation.
Greenlaw was seen as a possible future starter, but wasn’t expected to contribute in this first season in the league. Boy, were they wrong. Two of the bigger plays the defense had the whole season cast Greenlaw as the star. In the team’s first meeting with the Seattle Seahawks, Greenlaw intercepted Russell Wilson in overtime with the Seahawks pressing to score the game winning points and returned that almost-touchdown to around midfield. Although the team didn’t go on to win, plays like that proved that Greenlaw wasn’t scared of being in the most important positions and was able to make the play when called upon. Without that interception, who knows if Greenlaw would be on the field at the end of the game in Week 17 – again against the Seahawks. His devastating hit on the team’s six-inch line left the propelled the 49ers into home field advantage throughout the playoffs and set up the franchise’s spectacular run to the Super Bowl.
Even with Alexander spending much of the season on injured reserve after tearing his pectoral muscle, the play of Warner, Greenlaw, and Alexander was head and shoulders above what Al-Shaair, Nzeocha, and Lee had, and have, to offer. Warner and Greenlaw were one and two respectively on the team for tackles, and both had a knack of making big plays in big moments. Whether it was forcing a fumble, deflecting a pass, or picking up a sack on third down, the two players dominated offenses.
At times the tackling was suspect, but there is nothing to make anyone believe that those two, along with Alexander, the defense’s most vocal leader, will be lining up to next to each other for the next two or three seasons to come. After those three are where there could be changes or questions.
Azeez Al-Shaair has been a favorite of the coaching staff, earning a start in 2018 and given every opportunity to earn a starting spot during 2019 OTAs and preseason. The fact that he was unable to could have more to say about the top three LBs than him, or he could be destined to be a career backup LB. His low cap number and the coaching staff’s affinity towards him points to him probably being on the roster in 2020.
Nzeocha, also a coaching staff favorite, is around for special-teams purposes. He also was given a shot to earn the third starting LB position and was often times listed on the depth chart higher than what his playing time indicated. If the team feels that it can fill his special-teams role with someone else, they may take the $1.5M cap savings and either cut or trade him, but the coaching staff has shown several times they value top special-teams players greatly (drafting a punter in the fourth, giving Raheem Mostert a moderately long term contract, and their contractual dance with Robbie Gould). This makes me lean toward Nzeocha also still being on the team come Week 1 of the 2020 season.
That only leaves Lee, who is a restricted free agent. Whether Lee is re-signed or not will probably come down to how other teams value him. As a restricted free agent, the 49ers have the ability to match any offer given to Lee. If a team values him higher than the 49ers can afford to pay him, then he will be gone. If he doesn’t garner much interest on the free agent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 49ers bring him back.
This doesn’t mean fans should expect the team to just sit pat in the off season. Lynch and Shanahan have drafted a LB in the middle rounds the last two years in the draft with Warner and Greenlaw. Finding another gem in the middle rounds would allow them to move on from Alexander after the 2020 season if they quit seeing the value of him being a part of the defense and creating the cap space to extend Warner at that time.
Regardless of who is added, everyone should expect the lineup of Warner, Greenlaw, and Alexander to continue to menace opposing quarterbacks, running backs, and tight ends in 2020.
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