While Kyle Shanahan will always be keen to promote competition on his roster, the reality for a loaded 49ers team is that most of the position battles this offseason are confined to backup roles.
Such contests are unlikely to generate wide interest, and that is especially true of the prospective fight at linebacker.
With Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw locked in as the long-term starters at middle and weak side linebacker, few would give the depth chart at arguably the 49ers’ strongest position a second thought.
Yet, Azeez Al-Shaair’s departure in free agency created a hole at strong side linebacker. For as much as the proliferation of the nickel defense has decreased the number of snaps the starting SAM spends on the field, the void left by Al-Shaair is one of the Niners still need to fill. At this early juncture, it isn’t clear how they will do so.
The leader in the clubhouse to take his spot is likely Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. A college safety at Arizona, the 49ers signed Flannigan-Fowles to a one-year extension this offseason.
The 49ers' SLB position battle won't move the needle for many, but I'll be interested to see who replaces Al-Shaair, with Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles the favourite.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 4, 2023
Initially follows the TE to the flat but great work here adjusting and breaking in front of the throw to Metcalf. pic.twitter.com/ncyGBUOt85
His experience playing in the secondary, combined with the positive flashes he displayed in coverage when pressed into service in previous years, may give the 49ers confidence in Flannigan-Fowles’ ability to hold up in pass defense against tight ends when San Francisco plays base.
But it is hardly a clear path to the role for Flannigan-Fowles. Though he has predominantly served as a core special teamer, Oren Burks held up well when injuries elevated him to starter last year. In addition to Burks, Marcelino McCrary-Ball – a preseason standout last year – will also be out to make a strong pitch for at least a place on the active roster.
Draft picks Dee Winters and Jalen Graham would appear to be outside bets for any kind of significant playing time on defense as rookies, having been selected in the sixth and seventh round, respectively.
However, in a world where the Niners mix and match a little at SLB, Winters could well be asked to provide an additional pass-rushing threat on base downs. Al-Shaair was used as a blitzer during his time with the Niners and Winters had 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in his final college season at TCU.
Though he was reduced to watching the first practices of OTAs from the sidelines with a cast on his hand, versatile nickel-safety Qwuantrezz Knight could claim a place on the roster. He’d operate in the box as a de-facto extra linebacker if he impresses again in preseason, as in 2022.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff will make no decisions based on padless practices in May. However, with Greenlaw also not participating at this stage, those in the running to perhaps play base downs alongside him and Warner have more of an opportunity to impress.
SAM linebacker is the only position on the 49er defense that can legitimately be considered up for grabs. It may not seem overly important now, but the identity of the player who snatches the role will take on much more significance when teams try to attack this vaunted unit with tight ends.