Continuity won’t be an issue for the San Francisco 49ers’ defense going into the 2020 season. The Niners are returning all-but-one starter from a unit that finished second in the NFL in yards against per game last year.
The 49ers have an excellent defensive line that got after the quarterback frequently in 2019. Richard Sherman led the secondary, while 23-year-old Fred Warner emerged as the leader of the linebackers.
Warner should be joined by Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw as the starters in Week 1. Pro Football Focus ranked each NFL teams linebacking group, and placed San Francisco 10th:
“Fred Warner has emerged as one of the better coverage linebackers in the league in his two seasons but needs to cut down on his 37 missed tackles, the sixth-highest total during that time. Warner’s 74.5 coverage grade ranked 11th last year, and he has 14 pass breakups and two interceptions in his young career. Kwon Alexander returns for his second season in San Francisco after being limited to just 423 snaps last year. Alexander is another rangy, middle-of-the-field defender who usually grades well in coverage. However, he has tackling issues of his own, missing 13 of his 46 attempts last year to form the worst rate in the league. One of the unsung heroes of the 49ers’ Super Bowl run was 2019 fifth-rounder Dre Greenlaw, who stepped in with a 72.6 coverage grade that ranked 15th in the league while missing only four tackles including the playoffs.”
Warner is only going into his third season, and should continue developing into one of the best linebackers in the league. He will have to do a better job on his angles to help cut down on the missed tackles, which he had 22 of last season. While Warner was mostly good in coverage in 2019, he did have a couple of bad outings, including where he gave up a 125.0 passer rating in the thrilling win over the New Orleans Saints.
Alexander missed eight games last season with a torn pectoral muscle, before returning for the playoffs. He provided an emotional boost for the defense, but never played more than 54% of the defensive snaps in any of the three postseason contests. Similar to Warner, Alexander has an issue with finishing plays. He had a missed tackle rate of 17.1% last season. Where Alexander shines is in coverage. According to PFF, Alexander allowed a passer rating 79.9 when targeted, fourth-best of any linebacker in the NFL who was thrown at least 30 times last season.
Greenlaw was a pleasant surprise as a fifth-round pick last year. The 23-year-old started 11 games, and played 71% of the total defensive snaps in 2019, finishing with 92 tackles (3 for a loss), a sack and an interception. As mentioned in the PFF article, Greenlaw doesn’t have an issue with finishing plays. His missed tackle rate of 2.1% ranks among the best in the NFL.
The good news for the 49ers is that Warner and Greenlaw have youth on their side, and should continue to improve. I’m least sold on Alexander, who looked out of place while on the field in the Super Bowl, but that could be attributed to rust. San Francisco already restructured Alexander’s deal, but if he struggles, the team has a potential out after the 2020 season, according to Spotrac.
Here is how PFF ranked the other NFC West teams’ linebacker groups: Seattle Seahawks (1), Arizona Cardinals (17), Los Angeles Rams (32).
How do you feel about PFF’s rankings? Do you think Alexander will be on the 49ers roster in 2021?