The linebacker play from the 49ers was closer to outstanding than competent in 2021. Everybody in the football world has caught on to Fred Warner being the best linebacker in the game. But it was his counterparts who helped lift the defense this past season.
This was Dre Greenlaw’s third season in the NFL, but he only started two games after suffering a major groin/core injury against the Lions during Week 1. Greenlaw would return for the final regular-season game of the year and would go on to play at a high level throughout the playoffs.
Azeez Al-Shaair, who is 24 like Greenlaw, started 13 games unexpectedly. All A-Shaair did was rack up 22 tackles for loss, have two sacks, with an average depth of tackle of two yards. According to Sports Info Solutions metric “total points saved,” only six linebackers had a better season than Al-Shaair.
Do the 49ers have to choose between Greenlaw or Al-Shaair?
Forward-thinking is the name of the game in the NFL. Greenlaw will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023, so next offseason. Al-Shaair is a restricted free agent this season. Realistically, the 49ers could tender Al-Shaair this season, see if he has another impressive year, and reward him after the 2022 regular season.
If you’re San Francisco, is now the time to sell Greenlaw? I’m not sure the return would be worth it, considering how Dre just missed the majority of the 2021 season. He’d be valuable for most teams as Greenlaw can cover sideline to sideline and has the perfect “linebacker mentality.”
But teams won’t be lining up to send the 49ers a second or third-round pick for Greenlaw. Then again, when you look at what type of deal he’d command in the offseason next year if Dre were to walk, his contract is unlikely to warrant a compensatory pick higher than a fifth-rounder unless he has a Pro Bowl-level season.
I’d tender Al-Shaair with a second-round pick, see if anybody would bite on a Greenlaw trade, but wouldn’t willingly move him unless the offer was too good to pass up.
How’s the depth look?
There are no unrestricted free agents in the 49ers linebacker room. So, if the team wants to bring the same group back, it can. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is an ERFA, with Al-Shaair being an RFA — the Niners have the rights to both players.
The 49ers linebacker room is young, fast, athletic, fierce, and spearheaded by the best linebacker in the league. There isn’t much to complain about with this unit, although Al-Shaair and Greenlaw were banged up this past season.
The more this group plays together, the better they will get. We will see how Greenlaw’s contract plays out and whether the Niners place a high tender on Al-Shaair this offseason.