The San Francisco 49ers began the new league year by signing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander to a four-year contract.
Tampa originally drafted Alexander in the fourth round (124th overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft out of LSU. Alexander led all rookies with 93 tackles in 2015, led the entire NFL with 108 solo tackles in 2016 and was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2017. Alexander's 2018 season was cut short after he tore his ACL on Oct. 21 against the Cleveland Browns.
That last bit is sure to alarm fans given the 49ers recent history with players coming off of ACL tears. Still, Alexander will be a full eight months removed from the injury by the time training camp rolls around. Even if he starts the summer on PUP, Alexander should still be good to go for most, if not all of the 2019 regular season.
His fit in Robert Saleh's defense is fairly straightforward. When healthy, it's fair to assume his name will be penciled in at WILL linebacker next to Fred Warner. That provides the 49ers with a uniquely athletic tandem at inside linebacker. Alexander's 4.55-second 40-yard dash was the second best of any linebacker at the 2015 NFL Combine. The 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker has excelled in coverage over his four-year career. Alexander has six career interceptions and is the only player since 2015 to record at least 300 tackles, six picks and six sacks.
The need at inside linebacker stems from the release of Reuben Foster last November as well as Malcolm Smith's inability to stay on the field. Smith was signed in 2017 as the 49ers projected starter at WILL with Reuben Foster as the long-term solution. At only 24-years old, Alexander is only just entering his prime assuming his ACL makes a full recovery. That means the expectation is for Alexander to be a mainstay in the middle of San Francisco's defense for several years to come. His allure was only magnified by what is perceived as a weak class of inside linebackers in this year's draft.
Smith will still be in the mix, especially with Alexander likely to sit out the entire offseason program. The MIKE and WILL linebacker roles are interchangeable from a responsibilities standpoint, which means Smith (again assuming good health) could serve as the No. 2 guy at both spots. Brock Coyle and Elijah Lee are the 49ers other top options at inside linebacker should Alexander be forced to miss the start of the regular season.
Another likely selling point for the 49ers on Alexander is what appears to be a perfect culture fit. By all accounts, Alexander was a beloved member of the Bucs locker room and the leader of the team's defense.
"For us as a team, losing someone like Kwon hurts," Bucs tight end Cameron Brate told the Tampa Bay Times following Alexander's injury last season. "He's kind of the heart and soul of our team – just the kind of passion he brings every day. You know, we're going to miss that a lot."
John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have reiterated time and again that the person is just as important as the player when it comes to doling out big money in free agency. Everyone on the 49ers roster will take notice of Alexander's four-year deal, which makes it imperative that the linebacker be a culture fit in San Francisco. The 49ers assuredly did their due diligence in that regard before making their offer to Alexander.
More dominoes will fall as free agency has only just begun, but the addition of Alexander projects to give San Francisco's defense a much-needed playmaker for years to come.