When you think of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw’s rookie year, you think of his game-clinching hit against the Seahawks in Week 17 or his interception in overtime against Seattle earlier in the year. Greenlaw’s growth from the time the Niners took the field to the end of the season was palpable.
Greenlaw made Malcolm Smith expendable during training camp with hits like these in practice or making wow plays like these during the preseason. In his first game of the season, Greenlaw didn’t look like the speed of the game was too fast for him. Why? Well, he never was a player that ran a 4.73 40-yard dash. When Dre ran that time, he was coming off a hamstring injury. Greenlaw improved that time at his Pro Day when he was healthy to a 4.53. The 49ers have taken advantage of technology and moved off hand-held times where no one person ever has the same time. Who cares how fast you run in shorts? How fast can you run in the game with pads on? Dre was clocked running over 21 mph during his final year at Arkansas, which would have qualified him for one of the fastest speeds in the NFL during the past two years.
49ers safety Jimmie Ward believes Greenlaw can take the leap to stardom in 2020. Greenlaw can fly. When you have an elite skill, you’re going to make plays. When you make plays, you become a star. While the highlight plays mentioned above are the plays we remember and bring up, consistency is what makes you a star. Richard Sherman and Joe Staley are going to the Hall of Fame when they retire because those two have been consistently excellent their entire career. I’m not comparing Greenlaw to Hall of Famers. I am saying Ward has an argument.
Instead of regurgitating the same highlights, I want to show a few obscure plays that Dre made last year that give you an idea of what makes Greenlaw a potential star.
Most NFL players are fast, but not everyone plays fast. Greenlaw made plays as a rookie because he trusted what he saw and didn’t second-guess his initial reactions. This play against the Cardinals is an excellent example below. Greenlaw recognizes the play is a screen, avoids two blockers, and makes a tackle for loss:
That angle doesn’t give Dre justice for how fast he was moving. The angle does, however, show off his athleticism.
If you’re going to make a mistake, make it at full speed. With Greenlaw, especially as a starter, his aggression was the reason he made so many plays. The play below highlights Dre’s aggression, reaction, and speed all in one.
Run defenders are losing value by the year with the way the game is trending. Making plays in the open field is far more important than making plays as a “thumping” linebacker ala Takeo Spikes of yesteryear. There are still a 10-20 plays a game where linebackers in today’s NFL will need to make your cliche “plays in a phone booth.” Greenlaw’s aggressiveness allows him to make such plays.
Greenlaw isn’t one of those players that can only make plays going forward. The 49ers linebackers, in general, have outstanding range from sideline to sideline, both against the run and against the pass. Every game, Greenlaw, Kwon Alexander, or Fred Warner amaze by finding ways to get in the passing lane. This play below, to me, was Greenlaw’s most impressive play in coverage all season:
Greenlaw showed some serious range on that PBU. If he can play as fast as he runs, look out. pic.twitter.com/QBc1Nkcixh— Kyle Posey (@KP_Show) December 15, 2019
It’s not flashy and wasn’t even an “impact” play, but the ground he covered while keeping his eyes on the quarterback is as good as it gets. There is nothing easy, or even normal, about getting from the hash marks to the bottom of the numbers from the time the quarterback decides to throw the ball to the time the ball gets to the receiver.
Can’t cover? Can’t play.
If you can’t cover, you can’t play. When I saw Dre matchup against Alvin Kamara, who is one of the better route runners at running back in the league, and hold his own all game, I was sold. The 49ers didn’t ask much in coverage as far as man-to-man goes from Greenlaw as a rookie, but that will change after last year. Greenlaw has the athleticism to hang with any running back or tight end, and the aggression to make plays on the ball, as we saw all season. Greenlaw is far from a perfect player, and that’s not fair to paint him as one. Using context, for a rookie to come in and start midseason for a Super Bowl contender after hardly playing and to play at the level Greenlaw did was nothing short of amazing.
One of my biggest pet peeves in football is that we have to wait to crown a player or say he’s bad. It doesn’t take three years of watching the Bears starting quarterback to know he wasn’t going to be very good. We don’t have to wait three years to say Greenlaw can play. Will he take that jump to stardom? That remains to be seen. There’s no question that the 49ers found a gem on Day 3, though.