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49ers 90-in-90: How Dre Greenlaw can evolve into a complete LB in Year 3

Breaking down the 90 players on the 49ers offseason roster in 90 posts (over 90 or so days). Today is linebacker Dre Greenlaw

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

After a brilliant rookie campaign, expectations for linebacker Dre Greenlaw were through the roof heading into his second season. Despite the 49ers' defense remaining a top-10 unit, I’d say Greenlaw had closer to a sophomore slump of a year than a “good” year.

While that may seem a bit extreme, you’re looking for growth. Across the board, we didn’t see that with Greenlaw. Don’t get me wrong, he still made his fair share of plays during the 2020 season. The fifth-rounder out of Arkansas also had more hiccups, busts, and flat-out misses than we saw in his first year, too.

In 2021, Greenlaw needs to be consistent. The Niners are counting on him to be consistent, too. Speaking of consistency, an improved interior defensive line and welcoming Nick Bosa back will help everyone, including Bosa. When we’re talking about individual players, we have to isolate their performances, and that’s what we’ll do today with Greenlaw.

Basic Info

Age: 23 (turns 24 on May 25)

Experience: Two accrued seasons

Height: 6’0

Weight: 227 pounds

Cap Status

Greenlaw is under contract for two more seasons. Since he was a Day 3 selection, he’ll cost next to nothing against the cap in 2021 and 2022. His base salary for each season doesn’t exceed $1.1 million.

That’s part of the reason why coaches want to build through the draft. You get incredible value if you hit on your late picks and they become starters.

Why he’ll improve in 2021

When we get to positions that are difficult to quantify, we tend to rely on stats that sound good in theory but aren’t very meaningful. In most cases, these stats are subjective.

Take missed tackles, for example. Pro Football Reference had Greenlaw missing six tackles in 2020. Sports Info Solutions had Greenlaw missing ten tackles. PFF had Greenlaw missing five. Three different charting services had three different numbers.

Based on the eye test and some of my charting, Greenlaw is closer to double-digits than he is to five. In most instances, these are “broken tackle” stats. So, as was the case against DK Metcalf twice earlier in the 2020 season, if you don’t get a hand on the player, it doesn’t go down as a missed tackle.

I spoke to three linebacker coaches and asked five things they look for in a linebacker, and missed tackles never came up. Let’s stop using that as an end-all-be-all stat to say a linebacker is good.

Greenlaw’s aggression and angles put him in a bad spot during 2020. Sure, he is a speedster and can make up ground with the best of them. The issue is that when you hesitate, you allow the lineman to close ground and cut you off, making the path for a running back easier. That hesitation can force you to take a more difficult angle to the ball carrier, which leads to misses.

Those were two parts of Greenlaw’s game in 2020 that dipped from his first season. He must improve on that in 2021 if he’s going to be the above-average linebacker we all know Greenlaw’s capable of becoming.

Across the board, Greenlaw’s numbers dipped last season. He had a worse sack, hurry, QB hit, knockdown, and pressure percentage. His broken tackle rate went up 4%, and he allowed a higher completion percentage while giving up more yards per target. Plus, Greenlaw didn’t have an interception or a pass breakup, though there is a lot of luck involved with the former.

What to expect in 2021

When you’re a rookie, you’re ignorant to a lot. Oftentimes, this is bad. In Dre’s case, it wasn’t. He wasn’t in his own head. He wasn’t overthinking. He was just playing ball. See something, hit something.

Greenlaw’s trigger is fast, which is what made 2020 so puzzling. The only explanation could be that he overanalyzed what he saw and didn’t react. Under DeMeco Ryans, I’m expecting a simplified role for Greenlaw that allows him to run and chase and let his athleticism make plays.

Greenlaw can still evolve as a player, though. I’d like to see him more aware when he’s in zone coverage. He’s fantastic at coming forward but could be more prescient of route concepts and what the offense is trying to do in the intermediate range.

Once Dre unlocks this part of his game, look out.