Each week leading up to the start of training camp, 49ers.com will assess the team's roster as we get closer to the season. In this installment of the 2023 roster breakdown, we will take a look at the linebacker position and how the unit can continue progressing this season.
Pro Football Focus ranked the San Francisco 49ers as the NFL’s No. 1 linebacker unit entering the 2023 season, making it the second-straight year the 49ers earned the top spot on PFF's list. The 49ers linebackers are No. 1 in coverage with an 88.5 mark from PFF experts and are second-overall against the run, finishing with a 90.7 grade for the year.
The position group is headlined by First-Team All-Pro Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, the team's first and second tacklers in 2022, combining for 257 total tackles during the regular season. PFF writer Dalton Wasserman called the LB duo "the current gold standard at the position."
The 2022 linebacker unit was led by Warner, Greenlaw and Al-Shaair. The trio combined for 301 total tackles, 10 quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 16 passes defended.
The efforts of the 49ers linebacker corps helped San Francisco close out the regular season as the NFL's top-ranked defense and contributed to No. 1 finishes in interceptions (20), scoring defense (16.3 points per game), yards per game allowed (300.6), points per game allowed (16.3) and big play defense.
Burks was originally drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the third round (88th overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft. The linebacker joined the 49ers during the 2022 free agency period to help improve San Francisco's special teams unit.
Burks started just three games in 2022 but played defensive snaps in 13 of the 49ers contests through their NFC Championship Game run. Burks has notched 130 total tackles, three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, 1.0 sack, one pass defended, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery over his five years in the NFL.
Flannigan-Fowles originally signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2019. After spending his rookie season on the team's practice squad, he appeared in 45 games (three starts) and registered 31 tackles and 1.0 sack as well as 29 tackles on special teams over the following three seasons (2020-22). Flannigan-Fowles also appeared in six postseason games for San Francisco.
In 2022, Flannigan-Fowles appeared in all 17 games and notched seven tackles, including his first-career sack. He added 15 tackles on special teams, which was the fifth-most in the NFL in 2022. Flannigan-Fowles also appeared in all three postseason contests where he registered one tackle on defense and two tackles on special teams. In March, Flannigan-Fowles re-signed with the 49ers to a one-year deal.
A linebacker out of Purdue, Graham was the last of three seventh-round draft picks selected by the 49ers in this year's NFL Draft. He appeared in 38 games (35 starts) in four years (2019-22) at Purdue and registered 169 tackles, 16 passes defended, 12.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 2.0 sacks. In his senior year (2022), Graham earned All-Big Ten honorable mention after starting in nine games and notching 52 tackles, six passes defended, five tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one interception and one forced fumble.
Greenlaw is entering his fifth season with the 49ers. Last year, the linebacker had a career-best season with a sack, six quarterback pressures, 127 total tackles and an opponent passer rating of 95.5. Greenlaw also notched six pass breakups, one interception, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries – one he took for 23 yards to score a defensive touchdown.
McCrary-Ball initially joined the 49ers as an undrafted rookie free agent ahead of the 2022 season. McCrary-Ball had an impressive showing in the team's first preseason matchup against the Green Bay Packers where he notched an interception. The linebacker spent the rest of his rookie season on the team's practice squad.
In February, the 49ers re-signed McCrary-Ball to a one-year deal.
Robinson originally entered the NFL in 2021 after signing with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent. In December of 2021, the 49ers signed Robinson to the team's practice squad.
Last year, Robinson saw action in three games and played 36 special teams snaps.
As the No. 1 ranked linebacker in the NFL, Warner has proven to be elite in both run defense and pass coverage.
With 130 total tackles, three tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, 2.0 sacks, 10 passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble, Warner has contributed a massive part to the team's No. 1 overall defense ranking. Following the 2022 season, Warner earned his second AP First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.
A linebacker out of Texas Christian University, Winters was selected in the sixth round by the 49ers in this year's NFL Draft. He appeared in 48 games (39 starts) in four years (2019-22) at TCU and registered 246 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, 10 passes defended, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. As a senior in 2022, he started all 15 games and set career highs with 79 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, earning First-Team All-Big 12 honors.
"(Linebackers coach) Johnny Holland was a huge Dee Winters fan," Lynch said. "We trust Johnny's eye a lot. Our scouts like Dee Winters a lot... Dee kind of fits who we are. He is a player who drew some comparisons. Comparisons are dangerous because you have to go do it, but he has similar traits to Dre Greenlaw. A similar suddenness to his game... He's another captain and the unequivocal leader for that defense and the voice of that defense. That carried weight as well, and ultimately, we felt like Dee was just a guy we needed to bring in. We're really excited to take him."