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Dre Greenlaw’s upside and effort made Malcolm Smith expendable

The rookie LB has room to improve, but he’s already made a strong impression on the 49ers

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

When the San Francisco 49ers released linebacker Malcolm Smith on Tuesday, they were doing Smith a favor so he can catch on with another team. The free agent didn’t work out, and it was time to move on. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said releasing Smith shows the confidence that the team has in their linebacker group.

To me, it signals that the defense continues to evolve, and are looking for players that have versatility. For a rookie, Dre Greenlaw has been as versatile as it gets. Here is where Greenlaw has lined up in the preseason:

DL: 3

LB: 70

SCB: 6

CB: 1

FS: 1

If that’s not versatile, I’m not sure what qualifies. Greenlaw has more value than Smith, and it’s not just because of his athleticism. His effort is what sets him apart. I’ll use one play against the Chiefs as an example. On this play, Greenlaw does his job, and I cannot state that enough. He is aggressive and takes on the pulling tight end as well as the offensive lineman. That’s two for one. He’s the linebacker to the bottom of the screen:

It doesn’t look pretty because Greenlaw ends up on his back, but he takes on two blockers, and if you watch the running back, he’s forced to slow up because of it. This is an excellent teaching point for Azeez Al-Shaair to shoot the gap and make this play. With Kwon Alexander or Fred Warner, this is a tackle for loss and not a gain of nine. Shoot, if Al-Shaair had this exact play over, it’s probably a tackle for loss. The play is made by Greenlaw being fearless, though. That’s winning football. Do you know what’s not? The effort on these two plays below.

The first play is Cover 3, and it’s a simple read for Smith, the linebacker to the top of the screen. Sammy Watkins is in the slot, with Tyreek Hill next to him. As Watkins goes vertical, Smith should be relating towards him to “carry the vertical” as he sinks under Hill. Instead, Smith drifts into no man’s land and is covering grass, instead of a receiver.

I’m not saying Smith should make the play and prevent the completion. He should at least get into the throwing window and make the quarterback think twice about throwing it. The stat sheet will say Ahklello Witherspoon was at fault, but this is on Smith more than it is Spoon.

As you saw above with Greenlaw, he’s decisive. That’s why the 49ers were comfortable moving forward with him. There are going to be head scratching plays for Greenlaw in coverage. He is a rookie. That’s to be expected. The same cannot be said for Smith.

Football is largely a game of effort, especially on defense. Watch Smith against the fullback here:

If you’re preaching all of this energy talk, you can’t have that.

I’m not calling Greenlaw the next NaVorro Bowman. I am saying he’s displayed more than enough in training camp and games to show that, if you’re going to have three linebackers on the field, Greenlaw should be one. I’m looking forward to seeing how Greenlaw’s game evolves.