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49ers training camp preview: The linebacker core has a chance to be tops in the league

Xavier Dixon makes his debut on Niners Nation as he previews what to expect out of the Niners LB group headed into training camp

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Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49er linebacker group is not the best in the league, but they have the potential to be good in 2021. Not only was San Francisco a respectable defense last season, but also doing so with key injuries. So let’s look at the linebacker competition heading into training camp to feel where the group is.

We know who the two starters are in Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, but Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and Azeez Al-Shaair battle for that third spot. Plus, you have the veteran James Burgess and two youngsters in Jonas Griffith and Elijah Sullivan that will be fighting for a roster spot. Then, there’s the ultimate wild card in Samson Ebukam.

San Francisco has eight linebackers going into camp, but all not named Warner need to improve in pass coverage. In addition, having weak corner depth could call for more base defense looks. After all, Nick Bosa and potentially Dee Ford return to aid the lackluster pass rush from last season.

Robert Saleh left an imprint on this defense, most notably the linebackers. Passing the torch to former 10-year vet DeMeco Ryans is perfect for the LB core, who he's been coaching for the last three seasons. Ryans should feel good about his LB depth as they have a case for the strongest group on the defense.

Warner has the Mike linebacker position locked up. There isn’t much to say about Warner, who has a case as the best linebacker in the league. It’s only a matter of time before Warner is announced the highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL. He shows his ability in man coverage below.

Warner was ranked as the highest-graded linebacker by PFF (subscription needed), edging out the highest paid LB in Bobby Wagner. Warner was targeted (61) second-highest on the 49er defense last season and only allowed 270 yards. When San Francisco plays zone, Warner shows his ability to have an island influenced by his safety days in college.

Dre Greenlaw had a decent 2020 campaign but regressed from his 2019 form. Greenlaw’s Will linebacker spot is secure. Although, he should enter camp with a chip on his shoulder.

Greenlaw is stout against the run and comes downhill with force. And is still progressing as a linebacker in detail; Greenlaw could improve as a Blitzer and pass coverage.

The demand to be good in pass coverage is at an all-time high. Provided that the NFL is a passing league consequently puts stress on linebackers in coverage. Greenlaw often struggles in space even though he recovers with a great tackle below.

Undrafted free agent Azeez Al-Shaair has turned into a special team gem. Shaair has played most of his time on special teams while being featured as the SAM linebacker. The SAM position is likely most up for grabs.

Shaair flashed a bit in zone coverage, but it is hard to measure how he could truly impact the defense with limited snaps. All in all, entering his third training camp with San Francisco must help him take his next step.

Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles may be the most intriguing linebacker on San Francisco’s defense. A former safety like Fred Warner showed potential in his Week 17 start against the Seattle Seahawks.

It will take a lot for Flannigan-Fowles to jump the other three vets in front of him. But if he can repeatedly cover in camp, perhaps he could see himself in Nickel or passing situations.

That still leaves four linebackers who are all likely to be on the practice squad except for Burgess. Whereas Griffith, Hilliard, and Sullivan could join the practice team or be cut.

The linebacker core together if I had to give a grade would be a B-. Returning four LBs from the previous season will be key for development. Having the pass rush return to the levels of the 2019 season is also huge for this 49er defense. Altogether the defense is well-rounded, but the LB core could be the force.