Like a number of the 2019 San Francisco 49er position groups, the linebacking corps has an intriguing mix of emerging youngsters looking to establish more consistency, key veterans looking to rebound from serious injuries and a handful of athletic but unproven backups. The point being, this group of linebackers is not lacking in talent and potential. However, enough question marks exist to make many 49er fans feel as anxious as they are hopeful.

One of the more interesting dynamics to watch will be how this group adjusts to the new wide-nine defensive technique in front of them and its implications on their responsibilities. Historically (if played effectively with the right type of personnel), the wide-nine technique can be highly disruptive to opposing passing games but can be susceptible to interior running plays.

In previous years, the SAM position in Robert Saleh's defensive scheme was a hybrid role, played by a DE/LB-type who was as comfortable dropping into coverage as he was rushing the passer on the line of scrimmage, and the MIKE and WILL roles were fairly fungible. In the new scheme, all linebacker positions will be interchangeable and lined up in a "stacked" position behind the d-linemen with an emphasis on stepping up into gaps on run plays and providing tight coverage against the pass.

Projected to Start


Fred Warner (MIKE):

Coming into the 2018 season, Warner was expected to play and learn alongside former 1st round pick and projected franchise cornerstone, Reuben Foster. The assumption by many was that Foster would play the MIKE role and Warner the WILL, forming an incredible tandem of young, off-the-ball linebackers. However, throughout the off-season program and into training camp and preseason, the rookie from BYU proved more than capable (mentally and physically) of taking on the duties of relaying the plays, effectively becoming the quarterback of the defense while Foster served a 2-game suspension to start the new campaign.

In his 1st NFL game, Warner put on a clinic against the Minnesota Vikings, grading out at an unbelievable 88.7, performing equally well in pass coverage (giving up just 19 receiving yards on 5 targets) and in the run game (11 solo tackles and 1 forced fumble, created during a touchdown-saving tackle). He was all over the field that day, and most 49er fans (along with a fair number of NFL analysts) were convinced that the team had a surefire dynamic duo on its hands for years to come.

Unfortunately, we all know how that story ended.

Warner came back down to earth starting in Week 2 and struggled for the next few months, piling up the missed tackles and blown coverages while the 49er losses mounted. He eventually turned his season around and began a stretch of games starting in Week 8 that would rival his play in the Vikings opener, providing renewed hope for The Faithful.

Following the November 24th release of Foster, the mantle was clearly passed to Warner, and since then, he has not disappointed. He finished the season strong, tying for 1st among rookie LBs in the latest cool NFL metric, the "run stop." His coverage skills showed tremendous improvement over the course of the 2018 season, and with a year under his belt, a projected increase in pressure from his re-tooled front four and the addition of a new running mate in Kwon Alexander, Warner should make even greater strides in year 2.

Of note, Warner had a minor procedure on his knee which kept him out of the spring OTAs, but it doesn't appear to be serious, and he should be ready to go full-speed when training camp begins in late July.

Kwon Alexander (WILL):

The 49ers wasted no time in coming to terms with Kwon Alexander to a 4-year, $54M deal ($27M being guaranteed) during the open negotiating period of the 2019 NFL free agency frenzy. Of course, only time will tell if it was a stroke of genius, an act of desperation or something in between.

This is not a knock on Alexander, who, until his torn ACL last fall, was one of the more explosive linebackers in the league. Before his injury, his stats since his rookie year of 2015 put him at the elite level in the NFL:

  • His 8.3 tackles per game put him behind only Luke Kuechly (9) and Bobby Wagner (8.8).
  • His 10 forced turnovers since 2015 put him 4th behind the now "retired" Ryan Shazier, Kuechly and C.J. Moseley.
  • His 20 pass breakups during this same period tie him for 3rd with Kuechly.

There is no doubt that, before the injury, Alexander was among the most productive linebackers in the game. The obvious concern now is whether or not he can return to form. By all indications, he'll be ready to go for the upcoming training camp, and he seems to have already made a positive impression on his teammates, namely, fellow linebacker Fred Warner, so there is reason for optimism around this signing heading into the new season.

Stating the obvious is the best I can do here: if Alexander regains his explosiveness, he and Warner will make an incredibly exciting and formidable pair of LBs, bringing back memories of those heady days when Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman patrolled the middle of the 49ers defense. The bottom line is, Alexander's return to his former self would make life miserable for most NFL offenses. Anything less than a full recovery, though, and we're back to last season where the bulk of the second-level responsibilities end up falling on Warner's shoulders.

So here's hoping for a full and speedy recovery for Kwon Alexander as it is one of the keys to the success of the 2019 49ers defense.

Malcolm Smith (SAM):

I half-heartedly list Smith as the projected starter, mostly because he is a veteran who, if/when healthy, can make an impact on a defense. In truth, however, I would like to see a youngster in this slot, namely Elijah Lee (but I'll even settle for Greenlaw). On the positive side, Smith was willing to restructure his deal this past off-season, tilting the odds of him staying on the team ever so slightly in his favor. That said, if the 30-year old remains unavailable and/or ineffective, one of the younger, faster, cheaper LBs will have the opportunity to relegate Smith to the bench and likely push him off the roster altogether. So again, though I list him as the "projected" starter at this point, I do so with very little confidence.

Projected Backups


Elijah Lee:

Lee was picked up in 2017 from the Vikings practice squad, and after playing sparingly as a rookie, he stepped into a more prominent role last year with the early season suspension of Foster and the ongoing injury situation with Malcolm Smith. He had his best game in a Week 2 win against Detroit, racking up 10 solo tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble. He started the last four games of the season and finished strong, averaging nearly nine solo tackles per game in that stretch. Overall, Lee graded out as an above-average run defender but struggled mightily in pass coverage. As he heads into his 3rd NFL season, he should be counted on as a reliable backup at all 3 LB positions and could contend for the starting SAM role, particularly if he shows improvement in pass coverage. Although not a lock to make the team, the odds are certainly in his favor to do so.

Dre Greenlaw:

The 2019 5th round pick from Arkansas with the great story was able to get a lot of reps during the most recent OTAs with both Alexander and Warner rehabbing. His versatility (projects as a likely backup all three positions), athleticism and draft status should give him a leg up in the battle for a roster spot. Worse case on-field scenario for the undersized Greenlaw is that he seems to have all the tools to develop into a very effective special-teamer.

Mark Nzeocha:

Like Elijah Lee, Nzeocha was picked off another team's practice squad in 2017 and has managed to hang onto a roster spot by making key contributions. In Nzeocha's case, his contributions have mostly been as an ace special-teamer, though he did manage to start a handful of games last year. The 49ers saw enough value to sign him this off-season to a 3-year, $4.75M deal, though only $750k of it is guaranteed, so he'll have to fight off a handful of challengers if he wants to maintain his place on this team.

LaRoy Reynolds:

Reynolds has bounced around the league since arriving in 2013, with stops at Jacksonville, Chicago, Atlanta and last year in Philadelphia. Though he has yet to establish himself as a starting NFL linebacker, he has earned a reputation as a solid special teams contributor, and that's likely what the team has envisioned for him should he earn a spot.

Azeez Al-Shaair:

Al-Shaair is one of the more intriguing young additions to the LB group. At Florida Atlantic, he averaged over nine tackles per game throughout his career, with 32.5 of those being tackles for loss. He had a breakout junior season in 2017, putting himself on the radar of many NFL scouts by averaging over 11 tackles per game (a number that was 5th best in the entire country). After seriously considering declaring for the NFL draft, he ultimately decided to return to FAU for his senior campaign. This would prove to be a fateful decision to his draft status, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 6th game as a senior. The once mid-to-late round prospect went without his name being called in last April's NFL draft and ended up signing a UDFA contract with the 49ers in May.

If healthy, this tackling machine could very well find a way onto the roster. The more likely scenario, though, is putting him on the Active/PuP list before training camp, giving the team the flexibility to add him to the squad in mid-season.

David Mayo:

Mayo, a 4-year NFL veteran, formerly with the Carolina Panthers, signed with San Francisco to fill a spot as a special-teamer and provide depth at LB. Of note, his career grades as a special-teamer and on defense are well below average, so unless he finds another level of play in training camp or there are significant injuries to key linebackers, Mayo appears to be a long-shot to make the team.

Possible additions


Should John Lynch see the need to add another linebacker, options might be found as teams trim down their pre-season rosters. Some of the obvious considerations are veterans like Alec Ogletree of the New York Giants or Seattle's Barkevious Mingo who find themselves on the roster bubble either because of bloated contracts, mediocre play or both.

However, the 49ers have had a measure of success picking players up from other team's practice squads just after the final cuts (see Elijah Lee and Mark Nzeocha), so I wouldn't be surprised if they went down this path again should they look to add LB talent.

For example, youngsters like Emeke Egbule (a 6th rounder by the Los Angeles Chargers), Cole Holcomb (5th round pick by Washington) and Zaire Franklin (7th rounder in 2018 by Indianapolis) all fit the mold of athletic, sideline-to-sideline, stack LBs with the skills to excel in this new scheme. Keeping an eye on talent like this might prove beneficial as their current teams might try to sneak them onto their respective practice squads.

Outlook


This section should be called "The IF Factor."

If Alexander returns to form and if Warner takes the next step in his growth and if Smith can get and remain healthy, this linebacking crew could grade out as one of the better positional groups on the team. This would translate into teams finding it very difficult to move the ball against the retooled 49er defense.

Conversely, if Alexander fails to regain his explosiveness this season and if Smith remains MIA, Warner will have to rely on lesser/inexperienced talent around him (as he did most of last year) which could stunt his growth and ultimately throw a wrench in the new wide-nine scheme.

So when attempting to project the success of this group of linebackers, it leans heavily on the good health of Kwon Alexander.

If Kwon ends up needing more time to get back to being the explosive and productive player he once was, the ability of a young player like Lee, Greenlaw or perhaps someone not yet on the roster, to step up and step into those shoes, will then become the determining factor.

Next: Cornerbacks