San Francisco 49ers

49ers rookie Dre Greenlaw shows flashes of stopping power in debut with first team

Scenes from 49ers training camp

The San Francisco 49ers training camp practice featured Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo among others, on July 28 and 29, 2019.
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The San Francisco 49ers training camp practice featured Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo among others, on July 28 and 29, 2019.

Dre Greenlaw gets off to fast starts.

“He seems to have a nose for the ball,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said of the rookie linebacker. “I’m pretty sure it was the very first plays of OTAs (in June), he blew up the running back in the backfield, and I’m pretty sure the very first play of (training camp), he blew up the back in the backfield.”

San Francisco’s training camp began Saturday. And when the pads went on for the first time Monday, Greenlaw found himself in the backfield, yet again, blowing up a running play for a loss on the first snap of practice.

“I think right there,” Juszczyk continued, “that tells you the guy’s got a nose for the ball. He’s not timid. A rookie that’s going to go in there and shoot his guns on the very first play of practice. I think that’s impressive and I think he can build from that.”

Greenlaw, a fifth-round pick from Arkansas, has been a quick study. Quick enough to get the bulk of his practice reps this offseason with the starters, which isn’t easy for first-year players. The team’s No. 2 overall pick from the same draft, Nick Bosa, has gotten most of his playing time with the second unit early in camp, though that figures to change as Bosa continues to acclimate following a hamstring strain in May.

But Greenlaw (6-0, 230) is already with the first string and appears poised for a run at significant playing time, if not the lead “Sam” linebacker role next to Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander. He’s quickly earned the trust of the coaching staff thanks largely to his work away from the practice field.

He already knows the tendencies of San Francisco’s offense, which allows him to fill running lanes quickly and pick up coverage assignments without confusion. He’s earning a reputation for his intelligence and preparation, similar to Warner, a rookie a year ago who became the starting middle linebacker from the start of his career last September.

“Just watching how (Greenlaw) carries himself on the field you can tell that he carries himself pretty well off the field,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He knows what he’s doing for a rookie. There’s not much hesitation and you can tell he’s been doing it the right way so far.”

For Greenlaw, it starts with getting to the team’s facility every day roughly an hour and half before the 8 a.m. special teams meeting. He’ll soak in the hot tub to loosen his muscles before getting treatment from the training staff. Then it’s meetings, walkthroughs, practice and film sessions until the team is done at 8 p.m. Then he can return to the team hotel to watch video from practice on his iPad.

“He’s proving it every day by just being accountable and doing things the right way,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said.

Fifth-round draft picks don’t normally earn starting jobs their first seasons (Warner was taken in the third round). But safety recruits don’t often become starting linebackers in the SEC as true freshmen, either. He started all four years for the Razorbacks, notching 320 tackles (13.0 for loss), three forced fumbles and three interceptions.

Greenlaw might be on pace to accomplish both, which is even more impressive considering his background.

His mother lost custody of him when he was 8 years old and he bounced around group homes as a foster child in Arkansas until he was 14, when he was brought into the household of Brian and Nanci Early, who eventually adopted him. Greenlaw spent his adolescence looking for stability in his life. Playing in the NFL didn’t cross his mind until much later.

“My upbringing,” said Greenlaw, “it’s very similar to the game of football. It’s the obstacles, the ups and downs, the trials and everything. But at the end of the day you got to keep going and keep pushing.”

Having a relentless spirit isn’t enough. The NFL is too competitive and jobs are too scarce. It’s knowing how to use that persistence that led to Greenlaw fulfilling his dream as a professional football player.

“Just taking advantage of your resources, the people around you, your teammates and your coaches,” Greenlaw said. “Just gathering as much information as you can. Too much information ain’t never hurt nobody.”

Specifically, Greenlaw absorbs information quickly so he can eliminate certain plays an offense might run based on formation or alignment. He credited Warner with helping him understand those tendencies. Knowing what an offense won’t do can simplify assignments, which will become important as the 49ers prepare for new opponents each week during the regular season.

“The more you can eliminate plays that you know they’re not going to run, so it’s going to get you put in the best position possible,” Greenlaw said. “You know if they got in this formation, if you did your film work and you study and you watch that, (they’re) not running this certain play. It’s just putting in position to become successful.”

Greenlaw vibed quickly with 49ers linebackers DeMeco Ryans, a fellow SEC linebacker at Alabama, who carved out a 10-year NFL career, went to two Pro Bowls and was named the defensive rookie of the year in 2006. They first met at the Senior Bowl in January. Greenlaw was playing for Jon Gruden’s North team while the 49ers coached the South team.

But the two staffs swapped teams for a day to get to know prospects on the other side, which led to Ryans and Greenlaw becoming acquainted in a team meeting – and later the 49ers taking Greenlaw with the No. 148 pick in the draft. Since then, the relationship has been nothing but positive, which has been reflected in Greenlaw’s play early as a pro.

“Just the way that he carries himself and the way that I can really talk to him,” Greenlaw said. “I can talk to him not only as a coach but as a player. Not only about football, but about life. As soon as I met him and we started talking, felt the vibe, I just knew from them on.”

It’s easy to see why Greenlaw gets off to fast starts.

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