Photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

Photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

Previewing the San Francisco 49ers’ Linebacker Unit

Bret Rumbeck
Aug 19, 2020 at 2:00 PM

NFL linebackers are a rare breed of human beings. With endless reserves of grit and awareness, these fearless men send themselves on violent missions to halt running backs in their tracks. Along the way, linebackers must fight off lead blockers and see through collapsing creases in an offensive line to make a play.

The 2020 San Francisco 49ers are fortunate to have a deep linebacker corps, with three of the better players at the position in professional football.

Below is a projection of the linebacker corps for this year's 49ers.

First Team

Fred Warner - Mike
I remember my shock when the 49ers selected linebacker Fred Warner as the 70th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Indeed, he was not the top linebacker in the draft class, but I was curious how nine linebackers were taken before Warner.

At the time, I thought Warner would end up as a second-team linebacker, taking time to develop behind then linebackers Reuben Foster and Malcolm Smith. It wasn't a slight to Warner's skill, but a year of learning and picking up a few tricks from coaches and teammates would better round out his ability.

Flash forward to Week 1 of the 2018 season, and there was Warner as a starting linebacker in the NFL.

Warner ended up being the shining star of the 2018 linebacker unit and shouldered nearly the defense's entire workload. He made up for Smith's continuous mistakes and linebacker Mark Nzeocha's blown coverages.

One of my favorite Warner moments from last season was from the Week 10 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Warner took advantage of a blown blocking assignment and notched a rare sack.

Week 10: 2nd Quarter - 3rd and 4 at the SF 33 (11:23)

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh dialed up a six-man blitz, with defensive end Nick Bosa and rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw attacking the open side of the formation. Defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead were running an inside exchange, and Warner was ready to fire through the weak side B-gap.

Fortunately for Warner, Seattle's running back made the wrong read and left a wide-open lane for Warner to drop Wilson for a nine-yard loss.

Kwon Alexander - Will
The 49ers' acquisition of linebacker Kwon Alexander is one of the better free agent moves during the Lynch-Shanahan era. While I cannot speak for either man, I have to assume they saw how much work Warner was doing during the 2018 season and sought a top-tier linebacker to bring a greater balance to the defense.

Alexander came to Santa Clara with a mixed bag of game statistics, hot and cold performances, and a newly repaired ACL. Ultimately, he would be the high-octane player the 49ers lacked in 2018. Alexander was an excellent complement to Warner and an impactful leader in the locker room.

I used the play below in my defensive line projection last week, but it's worth sharing again to show what Alexander brought to the 49ers.

Week 3: 2nd Quarter - 1st and 10 at the PIT 25 (6:45)

A linebacker dropping a running back for a two-yard loss is a typical moment during a 60-minute football game. But the 49ers did not have a linebacker who could consistently make plays like this in 2017 or 2018, let alone move laterally across half a football field and fight off a pulling lineman to make a stop.

These are little moments the 2019 49ers' defense did well that it failed to accomplish in previous seasons.

I understand the want to see second-year linebacker Dre Greenlaw start over Alexander. Greenlaw is a better tackler, but Shanahan noted on August 15, 2020 that the Will linebacker position was not an open competition.

"We compete all the time, so no one just has a job set in stone. But I don't see that as an open competition right now. We brought Kwon here for a reason. (He) did exactly what we wanted when he was out there and did even more than we anticipated from a leadership standpoint.

"Kwon's been great here. That's not to take anything away from Dre. He had a hell of a rookie year. The more he got his opportunities, the better he got. But we've got a few good guys there, and we see that as Kwon's job right now."

Second Team

Dre Greenlaw - Mike/Sam/Will
Decades from now, Greenlaw will attend an alumni event at Levi's Stadium. A young fan, attending his first 49er game, will look at Greenlaw trotting to the 50-yard line, puzzled why he was receiving such a roar of approval.

"That man got us home-field advantage in 2019," his dad would say. "Made a huge stop to save a win against Seattle in Week 17. He was underrated and overlooked as a pro."

Greenlaw was exactly the second-team player the 49ers needed in 2019, and he'll play the same role this season. However, that is not slighting his talent. Having a quality player like Greenlaw backing up Alexander or Warner is an excellent problem to have.

The 49ers have seen the results of subpar second-string linebackers, mainly in Brock Coyle and Malcolm Smith. It seemed that when one of those players was on the field, the opposition would slice through turf like a scythe through a barren Soviet wheat field.

Plus, I would not be shocked to see Greenlaw in for Alexander more often than a typical second-team player or any new wrinkles defensive coordinator Robert Saleh crafted during the offseason. He's capable and comfortable in any situation or playing Mike, Sam, or Will.

Joe Walker & Azeez Al-Shaair - Mike & Special Teams
The second-team Mike linebacker for the 49ers will probably see the field this year, but only in a special teams role. Over the past two seasons, Warner has played approximately 98% of the 49ers' total defensive snaps, making a second-string Mike linebacker nearly irrelevant.

However, I have gone back and forth as to who could fill in for Warner in a pinch. Part of me wants to see second-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair step up during camp and grab a roster spot while it's open for competition. He started four games last fall and made 18 tackles.

However, with no preseason games, it will be tough to see if Al-Shaair improved his tackling from his rookie season. Coming out of Florida Atlantic, Al-Shaair was one of the top tacklers in Conference USA. That skill has not carried over into professional football as he missed six tackles last year.

Once reality's bright light cuts away the fog, it is clear that fifth-year veteran linebacker Joe Walker will probably be the second-team Mike linebacker, at least on paper. Walker's experience provides a slight edge over Al-Shaair.

Oddly, Walker missed 11 tackles last year while with the Arizona Cardinals, so I would not be surprised to see Al-Shaair and Walker spend most of their season playing special teams.

Mark Nzeocha - On the Bubble
Saleh hardly used Nzeocha as a linebacker last year, as he was only in the defensive huddle for 26 total snaps in 2019. Nzeocha was predominantly a special teams player, notching 117 snaps on punt/kick coverage and return.

The 49ers get the same level of work from Walker and Al-Shaair, which means Nzeocha will have to show major improvements from last year. Otherwise, I do not see him making this year's final roster.

All images courtesy of
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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