Every day leading up to the start of training camp set for July 28, 49ers.com will assess each position group on the roster as we get closer to the season. In this installment, we will address the linebacker position and how the unit can improve in 2020.
A position group that virtually appears set heading into the season are the 49ers linebackers. There's not much question behind their trio of proven starters in Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. Additionally, the 49ers are loaded with young, yet unproven depth at the position.
One potential lingering question could be who is set to play weakside (WILL) and who will be the 49ers starting strongside (SAM) linebacker? To put into perspective how trivial the difference is, both positions are fairly interchangeable. With a projected season-ending injury to Alexander last season, Greenlaw was thrust into the starting WILL role and thrived.
"Being a WILL and SAM, strong side and weak side, you kind of do some of the same things - just opposite techniques on certain plays," Greenlaw said back in May.
Will the 49ers keep Greenlaw at WILL or revert back to starting SAM linebacker? Can this trio take steps forward with their first full offseason together?
It's hard to believe 2019 was Alexander, Warner and Greenlaw's first season together. The 49ers young trio of linebackers set the tone for San Francisco's defense last year. Through catchy nicknames and unparalleled energy on the field, the group brought a refreshed swagger to the team that became infectious throughout the 49ers locker room and fan base.
The group managed to maintain production despite injuries and shifts in roles. Collectively, the 49ers linebackers amassed 272 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, 16 passes defended and four interceptions and were essential to San Francisco's Super Bowl run.
Fred Warner: Warner has blossomed into one of the league's top linebackers in just two seasons with the 49ers. The former third-round pick led the team with 118 total tackles (89 solo) and registered three sacks, three forced fumbles, nine passes defended and an interception for a 46-yard touchdown. He also added another interception in Super Bowl LIV. In a list garnered by over 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players, Warner landed in the final spot on ESPN's rundown of their Top 10 linebackers for the 2020 season.
"The 49ers ask Warner to do a lot: Call the defense, anchor the run, chase pass-catchers on deep over routes on third down," ESPN staff writer Jeremy Fowler wrote. "To be sure, Warner has one of the best defensive fronts to help him clean up. But a separate NFL coordinator said Warner belongs because he's a 'real factor in pass defense, real smart.'"
Kwon Alexander: Joining the 49ers in free agency last season, Alexander's presence was immediately felt both on and off the field. Regarded as one of the leaders of the defense, Alexander notched 34 total tackles, four passes defended, two quarterback hits, an interception, a forced fumble and 0.5 a sack in eight games in San Francisco.
Alexander suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Week 9 of the regular season that was widely assumed to be season ending. Instead, the linebacker made an extraordinary return by the divisional round of the postseason, where the re-energized 49ers defense held Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook to just nine carries for a season-low 18 yards.
Dre Greenlaw: Greenlaw beat out several veterans in training camp last season for the starting SAM linebacker job. He also stepped in for Alexander at WILL after the Week 9 injury that kept him out of the remainder of the regular season. Greenlaw finished his rookie campaign with 92 tackles, second only to Warner, a sack, two passes defended, an interception and his notorious emphatic goal line stop against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17. According to Pro Football Focus, he missed just four tackles all season. Greenlaw's first-year performance earned him a spot on the Professional Football Writers of America's All-Rookie team.
"I'm just ready to play wherever the coaches put me at, and I know I've got to be ready to play both positions," Greenlaw said.
Azeez Al-Shaair: The injury to Alexander also opened the door for Al-Shaair. The undrafted rookie appeared in 15 games, primarily on special teams, before starting four games at SAM linebacker, registering 18 tackles.
Mark Nzeocha: The fifth-year linebacker registered two tackles and an interception while subbing in at SAM linebacker last season. As a key contributor on special teams, he also notched seven special teams tackles while appearing in all 16 games last season.
Joe Walker: The 49ers signed the former Arizona Cardinals linebacker at the start of free agency. Walker started 11 games last season and notched 65 total tackles, five for loss, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble.
Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles: An undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona, Flannigan-Fowles appeared in 50 games (36 starts) and recorded 243 tackles, 10 for loss, six interceptions, 22 passes defended and three forced fumbles in 2018. Flannigan-Fowles landed on the 49ers practice squad heading into the regular season, however was placed on Injured Reserve in December.
Joey Alfieri: The 49ers signed Alfieri to the team's practice squad back in December after being waived by the New York Giants in August. Alfieri originally entered the NFL after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent. During his time at Stanford, he appeared in 50 games (27 starts) and registered 165 tackles, 26.5 tackles for loss, 14.0 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, six passes defensed and one touchdown.
Jonas Griffith: Undrafted out of Indiana State, Griffith appeared in 44 games across five seasons and registered 382 tackles, 50 for a loss, 14 sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He was also named a 2019 first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference player.