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49ers 90-in-90: Dre Greenlaw is the heartbeat of the defense

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

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

To execute Dre Greenlaw’s job at a high level, you have to have a couple of screws loose. Thankfully, for the 49ers defense, Greenlaw is a maniac. That is a compliment.

The Niners have been grooming Greenlaw since the moment he was drafted. Prior to the 2021 season, then defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans had high hopes for Greenlaw entering his second season. Ryans singled out Greenlaw for his performance in OTAs, saying he was “fired up to see his growth this year.”

Unfortunately, Greenlaw suffered a groin injury against the Detroit Lions in Week 1 that sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. Dre returned for the Wild Card Round against the Rams, where head coach Kyle Shanahan called it one of the best performances he’d ever seen from a linebacker.

Something changed after that game. That was the turning point for Greenlaw. He went from an athletic linebacker making splash plays, to a defender opposing ball-carriers had no interest in getting tackled by. And that changed the 49ers defense. Now, they’re all bullies.

Basic Info

Age: 26

Experience: 4 accrued seasons

Height: 6’0

Weight: 227 lbs.

Cap Status

Greenlaw has two years left on his contract as it voids in 2025. Considering his impact on the Niners defense, he’s on a team-friendly deal. His base salary is just north of $12 million combined during the next two seasons. Greenlaw’s cap number in ‘23 is $5.54 million. That number nearly doubles next year to $9.63 million.

How he can improve in 2023

Missed tackles are an overrated stat. If a player misses a tackle, but three other defenders are right there, or the player who missed forces the ball-carrier to run backwards and lose yards, that’s not a loss for the defense.

It’s also a sign that Greenlaw lives around the ball. Per Sports Info Solutions, Dre missed 22 tackles last year, which was six more than he had in any of his previous three seasons. But he also played the most snaps, and, from a missed tackle percentage standpoint, only 2019 was lower.

Still, Greenlaw had a handful, maybe a few more, of whiffs that led to first downs for the opponent. He has to clean that up. There were occasions last year when Dre would come in too reckless, leave his feet, and not give himself a chance at making a clean tackle.

The primary area where Greenlaw must improve is his awareness in coverage. Teams would pick on Greenlaw underneath in coverage, whether man or zone. Dre could have a better feel for how teams want to attack him.

He could do this by film study, learning from the linebacker next to him, not being over reliant on his speed, or all of the above. The counting stats in coverage don’t reflect well, as Greenlaw gave up a 72 percent completion percentage on 47 targets.

A high completion percentage allowed is expected. The issue, at least last year, was allowing yards after the catch. Greenlaw allowed the seventh-most yards after catch among all linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps in ‘22. That ties into the missed tackles.

What to expect in 2023

We’ll see how often new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks uses Greenlaw. Last year, Ryans elected to use Greenlaw in coverage more than a blitzer. Although he only rushed the passer 30 times last year, Greenlaw’s pressure percentage was 14.3 percent, which is slightly above average.

Another season where Dre plays the bully is what we can expect. That’s his role on the Niners defense. Greenlaw is the enforcer. But what the team cannot afford is another injury. While injuries are uncontrollable, the depth at linebacker took a hit when Azeez Al-Shaair left for the Titans during free agency.

The 49ers got away with an extended Greenlaw absence a couple of seasons ago. They won’t be as fortunate in 2023.