The 49ers could have a drastically new look at linebacker in 2019, both in personnel and scheme. Second-year pro Fred Warner may be the only returning starter while San Francisco will spend training camp integrating their $54 million addition, Kwon Alexander.
Let’s preview the team’s group of linebackers ahead of the start of training camp later this week.
Defining story line: Life beyond Reuben Foster
Arguably the biggest misstep of the Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch regime was the drafting and handling of talented linebacker Reuben Foster, who was released in November following an arrest at a team hotel in Tampa related to domestic violence. The 49ers moved on from their 2017 first-round draft pick by bringing in Alexander, who’s nearly four months younger than Foster despite being in the league for two more seasons.
Alexander figures to play the weak side “Will” linebacker role next to promising youngster Fred Warner, who earned the starting middle linebacker job last season by quickly gaining the trust of the coaching staff. Warner played more snaps than anyone on San Francisco’s defense and proved to be a quick study as the player responsible for relaying the signals from coordinator Robert Saleh in the huddle.
The fleet-footed, 227-pound Alexander has the ideal skill set to thrive in coverage, which has become far more important than stopping the run in the modern NFL. He ran a speedy 4.55 at the combine before getting drafted in the fourth round in 2015. Gone are the days of the 250-pound thumpers that were known for taking on guards in the running game. Linebackers now have to run and cover in space, which is why Alexander garnered the fourth-richest contract of any linebacker in the NFL in March.
The caveat: Alexander suffered a torn ACL in October and it’s unclear heading into training camp when he’ll be available after rehabbing during the offseason. He could start the season on an injured list, costing him the first five games and limiting his value relative to his massive contract (San Francisco has its bye Week 4). However, the deal includes just $14.25 million in full guarantees, which could give the 49ers flexibility after 2019 if Alexander doesn’t return to form.
The strength of San Francisco’s defense is the defensive line, which should help Warner and Alexander significantly. On the other hand, a tweak to the scheme might make things a touch more difficult. New defensive line coach Kris Kocurek is going to implement a new “Wide 9” scheme for the defensive ends, requiring them to align wider opposite offensive tackles. That could widen the running lanes inside, requiring more from the linebackers against the rush.
Because Alexander and Warner (knee surgery) both missed the offseason program, it’s hard to gauge how they’ll transition to their new-look responsibilities.
Warner and Alexander are the clear-cut starters, when healthy. Both should play nearly every snap, unless one gets replaced with a defensive back in long-yardage situations. Sub packages with just two linebackers were used more than two-thirds of the time throughout the NFL last season and that rate should continue to rise in 2019.
However, the third linebacker spot appears unsettled. A competition might be shaping up between veteran Malcolm Smith and rookie fifth-round pick Dre Greenlaw, who worked with the starters during the offseason program while Smith’s workload was limited after dealing with a lower leg injury throughout last season. Smith, of course, missed all of 2017 with a pectoral tear and was limited to 12 games (five starts) in 2018 because of his lingering issues.
The new scheme makes the 49ers’ linebackers more interchangeable, when a “Sam” linebacker was essentially a defensive end tasked with setting the edge. That responsibility will shift to the defensive ends in the “Wide 9” alignment, allowing the more standard three-linebacker look at the second level of the formation in base packages.
Greenlaw has a fascinating story away from football. Between the lines, he joins San Francisco with a vat of experience. He started all four years at Arkansas, logging 321 tackles in 40 career games. His workload with the first unit in the spring was reminiscent of Warner’s after he was first drafted, which could be a sign the coaching staff already thinks highly of him.
Sleeper(s) to watch
Greenlaw would certainly qualify, but there’s another name worth highlighting here. While Warner and Alexander were sidelined, third-year pro Elijah Lee was calling the signals as the “Mike” linebacker with the starters throughout the offseason. Lee was the one who replaced Foster late last year and is a favorite to make the team, and perhaps the most likely replacement for Alexander if he’s unavailable when the regular season starts.
The 49ers liked Lee before the 2017 draft and brought him in on an official visit thinking they could sign him if he went undrafted. He wound up getting taken by the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round. Later, the 49ers plucked him off the Vikings’ practice squad before eventually he earned a prominent role with San Francisco.
Lee appeared in all 16 games last season and made five starts to end the year. He racked up 65 tackles, a sack, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and forced fumble. The 49ers like Lee and Greenlaw as possible replacements behind Warner and Alexander; Smith’s future remains uncertain. Smith likely needs an impressive training camp to stick around. Greenlaw looks like an obvious replacement and the team could elect to save some money by releasing Smith after his contract was restructured in March to lower his salary. Smith turned 30 earlier this month and was disappointing during his first two seasons with San Francisco that were mostly marred by injury.
Projected depth chart
Mayo was an under-the-radar addition this offseason. He’s likely to round out the depth chart and contribute on special teams. He served as the “Mike” linebacker with the reserves throughout the spring and played well in spurts. Nzeocha played the “Sam” role last season and will have to adjust back to the inside. He was also one of the 49ers’ core special teamers. Azeez Al-Shaair didn’t participate in the offseason program because of an undisclosed injury after signing as an undrafted free agent. He’s a candidate for the practice squad, as is Reynolds.