Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports


Why John Lynch and DeMeco Ryans believe Azeez Al-Shaair is the 49ers’ most-improved defender

Rohan Chakravarthi
Dec 3, 2021 at 9:52 AM--


When referencing the San Francisco 49ers linebackers during the offseason, the main spotlights were All-Pro Fred Warner and his coverage sidekick, Dre Greenlaw. Greenlaw is most known for his magnificent stop of Jacob Hollister at the 1-yard line to clinch the NFC West title in Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season.

But, after Greenlaw went down at the beginning of the season with a groin injury, Azeez Al-Shaair, who went undrafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, stepped up with a major opportunity and hasn't looked back.

Recently, I placed Al-Shaair as essentially the sixth-most valuable player on this 49ers football team this season, and the third-most valuable defender, behind just Nick Bosa and Emmanuel Moseley.

With 70 tackles and five tackles for loss, Al-Shaair is second on the 49ers in both categories and has turned from a serviceable backup in run situations to a highly talented starter that continues to evolve.

His work has certainly not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff, as both John Lynch and DeMeco Ryans praised the 24-year old linebacker Thursday, especially about his play following Warner's injury last Sunday in a crucial game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Regarding Al-Shaair, Lynch described his development, going from a spiraling linebacker looking to make splashy plays to a methodical linebacker that can identify certain gaps to make the most impact.

"I love his style of play," Lynch said on KNBR's Tolbert, Krueger & Brooks show. "... At times, early on in his career, a little out of control. But I think, over time, he's learned that you can do that and play with tremendous angles. And Azeez is really coming into his own as a player. He's playing smart football."

After Warner left with a hamstring injury, Al-Shaair was tasked with wearing the green dot, the helmet that has communication with the sideline and is given to the defender that calls the plays, and still flourished despite the expanded responsibilities.

"I think a great illustration of that [is] when Fred went out. We just don't play without Fred. Fred has just played so many snaps here. He just doesn't miss. And the times when we have been forced to in the past, there's been a huge drop-off when he's gone out. [With] Azeez, we didn't miss a beat, and that's a credit to him; the ability to move, slide down to the MIKE linebacker, who's the quarterback of the defense. I went up to him and said, 'Man, that's so impressive,' what he can do in there, and our defense did not miss a beat. He found the ball a couple of times."

Despite being just 24, Al-Shaair has turned into a leader this season, per Lynch, and the 49ers will have to rely on the consistent effort he provides weekly with Warner likely out against the Seattle Seahawks.

"He's becoming a leader on this team and really, really excited for where his career is going," Lynch continued. "And—to find that consistency, once you become one of the lead dogs, you've created a standard. Now you've got to find a way to bring it each week. And I think Azeez has really grown in that way, and that's been so good for our team."

In addition to Lynch, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans praised Al-Shaair's effort and aggressive mentality that sets the tone for the defense around him, who in turn play with that same energy.

"Yeah. That is Azeez. That's who he is," Ryans said on Thursday. "He is probably one of our best effort players. When you turn on our tape, you're going to see 51 flying around sideline-to-sideline making plays. And that's what I want from him. That's what I expect from him. Love the aggressiveness and at the end of the day, when it comes to the point in time to make that tackle, when you're flying around like that, sometimes you may miss, but that's okay if I have 10 other guys flying around at the same speed and with the same mentality that Azeez is flying around with."

Easily in the midst of a career year, Al-Shaair's aggressiveness may cause him to miss the occasional tackle, but Ryans is confident in the players behind Al-Shaair.

"So Azeez, he has just continued to do what he's doing," Ryans said. "He's been doing a great job, having the best year of his career. And I see him just continue to get better and better each week. But when you fly around like that, that's what we want. And of course, sometimes you may miss, but it's all about those other guys coming as well, and are they flying around as quick as him."

Last week was a huge week for the third-year linebacker, as he had not only eight tackles, but also a key interception and a fumble recovery, accounting for both of San Francisco's forced turnovers.

In addition to his flashy plays, Al-Shaair made an impressive sideline-to-sideline tackle on Vikings running back Alexander Mattison on Minnesota's last drive of the game, which Ryans acknowledged.

"Yeah, of course [that's a play where he's able to get sideline-to-sideline] and Azeez, he plays all over the field and that play there during the two-minute drive," Ryans said. "We try to teach our guys in two-minute, you want to tackle the outside leg, knock guys back, so the clock can continue to run. And that was a perfect example from not only Azeez, but also E-Man [CB Emmanuel Moseley] had a tackle on that same drive. That's exactly what we want there to continue to make the clock move. So that's Azeez, he's all over the place, he plays with a lot of energy, hair is on fire, and he's a guy who can rally the guys around him as well."

After an impressive season already, Al-Shaair might face his biggest challenge yet: carrying the MIKE linebacker responsibilities and quarterbacking the defense against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Lumen Field.



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