Last week, we projected the San Francisco 49ers 53-man roster. The five linebackers we had making the team were Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, and Joe Walker. The rest of the linebackers currently on the 49ers 90-man roster: Mark Nzeocha, Jonas Griffith, and Joey Alfieri. There is a battle at “WILL” linebacker as well as a battle for the final linebacker spot, assuming the team keeps five.
The battle starts with the fourth spot
Warner, Alexander, and Greenlaw are all locks. Al-Shaair is a talented young linebacker that has a leg up on the competition, but I wouldn’t call him a shoo-in just yet. He struggled in limited action last year. When Al-Shaair played the most, he had his worst games. To be fair, one of those came against the Ravens, and Al-Shaair was recovering from a season-ending knee injury. He didn’t play in the playoffs, but Al-Shaair was a contributor to all of the kick and punt teams.
Griffith is an intriguing UDFA signing. Griffith is one of those “see ball get ball” linebackers. There isn’t a ton of Indiana State tape on the internet, but in the games that are available, Griffith is usually chasing someone down and making a big hit. I’ve seen Griffith make plays on special teams, too. It’ll come down to how Griffith adjusts to the speed of the NFL. Consider me a fan, as one game during his junior year Griffith pulled a bag of candy out of his game pants.
Walker was the Cardinals special teams ace. NFL experience should help Walker, as should his athleticism. Whether it’s the two players mentioned above, or Alfieri, one of the two final spots is Walker’s to lose.
Can Greenlaw jump Alexander?
One of the sneakier position battles will be who starts at linebacker next to Warner once the 49ers go into their Nickel defense. When healthy, Alexander was outstanding during the first half of the season. Kwon came back toward the end of the year, and it was evident he didn’t have the same mobility from a torn pec, and it showed up in Alexander’s tackling. Through the first eight games of the season, Alexander had two more stops than Warner on 72 fewer snaps. Kwon allowed a passer rating in coverage of 67.4 on 24 targets, while Warner allowed a passer rating of 87.4 on 38 targets. Even on the field, it felt like Kwon had an equal impact. Alexander has his contract that’s in his favor as well.
From Week 10 on, Warner transformed into a playmaker and one of the best linebackers in football. Some of the plays he made in coverage were unbelievable. Saying that Warner picked up the slack is the understatement of the year. Warner was Alexander’s replacement fifth in the league during the second half of the season. Greenlaw was tied for 12th. Greenlaw’s passer rating wasn’t as good, but, like the other two, he made plays. Greenlaw made the plays that you remember, while the most recent memory is Kwon missing tackles. The answer is always somewhere in the middle. These are great problems to have if you’re San Francisco.