It took less than three hours of the legal tampering period of free agency for the 49ers to make a fanbase dividing splash. Kwon Alexander, the 24 year old former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker was signed on a four-year, $54 million deal. At the time, it represented a then off-ball linebacker leading annual salary of $13.5 million. When this apparently excessive salary was considered alongside Alexander’s current recovery from an ACL injury, and a smorgasbord of Twitter assessments based on PFF grades and missed tackle numbers, many condemned John Lynch’s first foray into free agency in what could be a defining season for ShanaLynch.
I was certainly a little apprehensive about the deal: I wasn’t convinced by Alexander - much like many followers of the 49ers I had seen Alexander’s reputation on the Twittersphere. Furthermore, much like any 49ers fan, the prospect of spending significant capital on someone recovering from an ACL injury brought back some horrible Baalkeian flashbacks. But I wanted to try and see what the 49ers saw in Alexander that warranted them making him their prime free agent target.
When you start watching Alexander, the obvious thing is that he is the epitome of all gas, no brakes. His relentless playing style, athleticism, edge and smarts translate superbly to what the 49ers are looking for at their WILL linebacker spot.
Furthermore, there is plenty on film that shows Alexander making the types of plays he’ll be asked to make on a consistent basis for the 49ers. The traits that Alexander show are directly translatable to what the 49ers will be asking him to do. This is by far the most important aspect of his evaluation.
This play is an excellent demonstration of Alexander’s, MLB between the hashes on halfway, range. As a WILL in the 49ers scheme, Alexander will regularly have to pursue plays from the inside out. Often times, from the middle of the field to outside the numbers, much like he did on this play. Julio Jones beats the corner after catching this screen pass, but Alexander eats up the turf and makes the stop. Solid tackle technique in pursuit here as well, tracking the near hip, keeping his eyes up and getting both arms wrapped.
Another example of Alexander, MLB between the hashes on the 39, making a good play whilst performing a coverage responsibility he’ll be asked to do often as a 49er. Yankee concepts, deep post and a deep crosser, working off play action are a frequent weapon of opposition offenses against the 49ers’ cover 3 scheme. The 49ers ask their linebackers to get downhill aggressively against the run, but then turn around and quickly gain depth to get after likely crossers. Alexander just does this, demonstrating fluidity to flip his hips and good eyes to locate the receiver, adjust and make the play
Alexander (red sleeve on LOS) demonstrates his fluidity and athleticism in coverage awareness here, though he’s slightly late to register Jones coming on the drag. He might not have expected Lavonte David to carry the TE. No wasted steps, instant acceleration and tremendous pursuit once again.
Alexander’s, between the hashes on 35 yard line, fluidity again on show here. He understands his leverage and once again his change of direction on show with no wasted steps and an easy drive to keep Jones in check on the stick route.
Watch #58 as he reads this play like a book. Alexander identifies where it’s going early on and is waiting to make the tackle. Slight bad tackling habit shows up here. This has been something that does appear at times. He approaches the tackle very quickly, something that must to be accepted to an extent with linebackers that run like Alexander, and lowers his eyes at the contact point. In isolation, both of those actions make you vulnerable in the event of a late adjustments by the ball carrier. Together is understandably even worse. He needs to work on dropping his stride length and keeping his eyes up on approaching contact. In turn, that will help reduce his missed tackle count.
Alexander demonstrates good patience as well as his outstanding athleticism. He doesn’t bite on the misdirection, staying at home once he sees the TE coming back across the formation. Then, despite having a distinct leverage disadvantage on the tackle (comfortably inside him as the ball is thrown), beats him equally comfortable to his spot and blows up the TE on the throwback screen.
It is quite clear from a coverage standpoint, that Alexander has the all the requisite traits to excel as the 49ers WILL linebacker. He has outstanding range, generally takes good angles to the ball and impressive awareness of how plays are developing. He’s routinely around the ball, even when he has no right to be there and does not take plays off. His tackling can be mixed, but a number of his missed tackles are on plays he has no right to be close to, as he lunges after the likes of Tevin Coleman, Alvin Kamara and Taylor Gabriel on extremely low percentage tackle attempts. Such attempts are not low percentage because of poor technique however, but because Alexander has the athleticism (similar to the likes of Ryan Shazier and Telvin Smith) to somehow get close to plays and players when he simply should not. There are certainly technical issues at times, as touched on above, but he remains an excellent playmaking option in coverage. The story is much the same as a run defender.
Alexander (#58) looks to be the fast flow defender here, aligning a little deeper to stay out the wash. However, he recognises Vita Vea getting turned out of the frontside A gap and gets downhill himself to fill the hole, closing rapidly and popping the running back.
Atlanta attempts to bring a TE as a lead blocker to Alexander’s gap, but he gets blown up by Alexander. Gets lower than the TE, stands him up and makes the tackle as well for good measure. His physicality against the run showed up repeatedly on film.
Alexander again showing his physicality, this team blowing up the fullback in the hole before making the stop. Carl Nassib attacks aggressively upfield through the frontside B gap, Alexander correctly gets into the frontside C gap in response, meeting the fullback and getting in on the tackle.
Alexander demonstrates his patience again on this play, rather than his athleticism and physicality. He doesn’t just plough into the trash in front of him, maneuvering his way into the running back’s path and making the stop.
Alexander’s athleticism, assignment soundness, physicality, and relentless nature also ensure he can have the requisite impact of a 49ers WILL linebacker in the running game. The WILL can often be the unblocked defender, but he will also have to shed blocks, beat offensive linemen to their spot, understand his gap assignment and generally be an effective and disciplined member of the front seven.
Alexander can do all these things. At times, he will be over-reliant on or over-confident in his speed. You’ll see him attempt to run around or underneath blocks rather than taking them on. He also struggles at times to take on blocks, hardly shocking from a 230 pound linebacker, but he shows a knack for evading blockers with quickness and polished hand usage as well on film.
That same quickness and hand usage also comes in handy on occasion as a blitzer, where Alexander also makes an impact. Whether it’s by design off the snap of the ball, or on a green dog blitz, Alexander has the ability to beat blockers and close quickly on quarterbacks. Whilst you don’t want his pass rushing to be a crucial part of the defense’s plan to attack opposition quarterbacks, he is more than effective enough to justify sending on a handful of rushes a game to mix things up.
Equally, it’s evident that Alexander is athletically capable of handling the mobility of Russell Wilson, and dare I say Kyler Murray, twice a season as a spy.
GMs have to build a team to win their division first and foremost. Alexander is undoubtedly a linebacker who can excel in multiple roles as the 49ers’ WILL linebacker. Whether that’s as a cover man, run stopper, blitzer, or a QB spy. Whilst he is coming off an ACL injury, the way players recover from such injuries 49ers fans should not be overly concerned with Alexander’s ability to regain full health. Whilst they can stall a player’s NFL transition, the impact on an already adjusted player should be negligent.
Playing the WILL spot in the 49ers’ defense will allow Alexander to utilise the array of skills that he possesses, most notably his mind boggling athleticism, relentless nature and alpha persona on the field. He is considered a superb presence in the locker room and can undoubtedly be a central figure on the 49ers defense as a result of his personality and on-field ability.
It would however, be remiss to discuss Alexander’s signing without some, brief consideration, of the size of his contract. When the news broke, there was certainly some consternation regarding Alexander’s average salary. That should be somewhat relieved.
Firstly, the deals of CJ Mosley and Anthony Barr have both blown Alexander’s deal out of the water, particularly the former, in terms of annual salary and guaranteed money. Furthermore, they don’t fit as well in San Francisco. The former has a bigger reputation, but fits slightly less well in San Francisco than Alexander given the team’s commitment to Fred Warner at MIKE, whilst the latter is really a SAM linebacker here. That spot is not worth anywhere near such a big contract if the player is not also a top EDGE rusher on this team.
Furthermore, looking back to 2018, both Anthony Hitchens and Eric Kendricks got the almost the same amount of guaranteed money as Alexander, $2 million less over the course of their deals, though a lower annual salary. Neither have the coverage upside of Alexander however, crucial in today's NFL.
Another comparison that has been made is comparing Alexander’s average salary to those of Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner. When you consider salary cap inflation, Kuechly’s average salary per year when the contract was signed made up 8.6% of the 2015 salary cap, whilst Wagner’s made up 7.5%. By comparison, Alexander’s average annual salary makes up 7.2% of the 2019 cap. Mosley’s new deal makes up 9% of the 2019 cap.
Whilst one might argue that the average salary in the Alexander deal might be marginally too high, when you consider the 49ers’ typically team friendly contract structure and the fact this deal was exposed to the free market whilst Wagner/Kuechly were internal re-signs, the money here actually looks quite reasonable. Essentially, the team will either tie down a top tier WILL linebacker for their scheme through his prime years and pay him accordingly, at 24 he is younger than Reuben Foster, or will be able to release him any time after just a couple of seasons should he not to live up to their clearly lofty expectations. He has the traits to make the money worthwhile, the reason the 49ers paid him, now we just have to wait and see him hit the field. I am excited to see him in red and gold come September 2019.