49ers release LB Reuben Foster following latest arrest for domestic violence
Kwon Alexander in 2016 led the NFL with 108 solo tackles. He forced six fumbles and made six interceptions over four seasons. He’s also coming off a season-ending ACL tear and has a habit of missing tackles.
There are good and questionable aspects surrounding the takeaway-starved 49ers’ decision to add the Buccaneers’ talented linebacker at the start of the free-agent negotiating period Monday.
Most notably, there’s the contract. The deal is reportedly worth $54 million over four seasons. His $13.5 average annual salary would make him the highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL. It comes with $27 million in guarantees, according to ESPN, making it likely the 49ers could move on after two seasons with little dead money if things don’t work out (although details of the contract have not been disclosed, and figures are often inflated early in the reporting process).
Alexander fills a clear need. San Francisco moved on from Reuben Foster in November following his third arrest and second relating to his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. Foster’s release came hours before the 49ers took on Alexander’s former team in Tampa Bay, though Alexander wasn’t available after suffering his knee injury more than a month earlier against the Cleveland Browns.
One of Alexander’s appeals is his age. He doesn’t turn 25 until August and is actually younger than Foster (who turns 25 next month). Another appeal: athleticism. Alexander is listed at just 227 pounds but ran 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2015 combine, ranking in the 88th percentile among linebackers.
His slight frame is similar to Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith (who weighed 218 pounds at the 2014 combine), a weak-side linebacker who developed into one of the best in the NFL under his former position coach Robert Saleh, who’s now the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. Smith ran a 4.52 in the 40.
One of Saleh’s primary tasks is to get Alexander to improve his tackling. His 18 percent missed tackle rate was the second-highest among all linebackers with 1,000 snaps between 2015 and 2018, according to Pro Football Focus.
Alexander’s speed will allow him to play “Will” linebacker next to second-year pro Fred Warner, who relays play calls in the huddle with the green dot on his helmet. Warner, also a good athlete, doesn’t possess quite the speed as Alexander. And that could be why the 49ers targeted Alexander rather than Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley, who was widely considered the top free-agent linebacker available.
Had the 49ers added Mosley, he would have taken over at “Mike” linebacker, moving Warner to the weak side. Mosley is considered a stout run defender and strong tackler. But his biggest knock is his ability in pass coverage, where Alexander excels, and is the most important trait for modern linebackers.
To put it simply, San Francisco’s linebackers should be better defending the pass with Alexander and Warner in coverage than with Warner and Mosley. And Mosley will turn 27 in July, making him a riskier investment toward the end of his contract. Alexander will be 28 in the final year of his deal.
Mosley should benefit significantly from Alexander’s new contract, which appeared to set the market at the position. Mosley is considered the better player right now and could command more money from the Ravens or another team on the open market. Conversely, the Ravens can’t be thrilled.
Mosley has proven to be more durable. He missed just three games in five seasons, which is one fewer than Alexander missed when he was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy as a rookie in 2015. Alexander has played all 16 games just once in four years and appeared in 46 of 64 total games.
Alexander hasn’t been cleared following an ACL tear Oct. 21 that caused him to miss the final 10 games.
He’ll join two other prominent 49ers in rehab from similar injuries, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon, who are slated to be healthy for training camp in late July. Garoppolo’s injury came roughly a month before Alexander’s in Week 3. McKinnon sustained his a week before the season opener.
Ultimately, making Alexander one of the NFL’s highest-paid linebackers is a questionable decision. But the salary could be justified by accounting for the salary cap that’s risen at least $10 million annually since 2013 and if the defense takes a significant jump. The 49ers are paying for a Pro-Bowl player, which Alexander was in 2017.
It’s a gamble, no question.
The 49ers set an NFL record in futility with just seven takeways and two interceptions last season. Alexander could help toward improving that. But only if he’s on the field.