© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers wasted no time making their first splash signing of 2019. Fewer than two hours into the legal tampering period, the 49ers reportedly agreed to sign former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander to a four-year, $54-million contract, Pro Football Talk first reported. Alexander will make $27 million in guaranteed money.
For a fourth-round pick out of LSU, Alexander has exceeded expectations through four NFL seasons. He has averaged more than eight tackles per game. He led the NFL with 108 solo tackles in 2016 and was named a Pro Bowler in 2017.
But Alexander has struggled to tackle consistently. From 2015 to 2017, according to Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney, Alexander missed 70 tackles, the most in the NFL. Deeney added that Alexander’s missed tackle rate of 18 percent is the second-highest of any linebacker with at least 1,000 snaps from 2015 to 2018.
Alexander has played in more than 12 games just once in four NFL seasons. He is coming off an ACL tear in Week 7 of the 2018 season, though he is expected to be fully recovered by the starting of the upcoming season.
It’s worth noting that Tampa’s run defense regressed considerably after Alexander tore his ACL last year.
Tampa Bay rushing yards allowed per game in 2018:
<Kwon Alexander tears ACL>
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 11, 2019
It’s clear the 49ers value strong linebacker play. There is no denying that versatile linebackers elevate the team’s 4-3 defense that Seattle popularized earlier this decade. Bobby Wagner is the paradigm.
Throughout the past two years, the 49ers have invested a No. 31 overall pick on Rueben Foster, signed Malcolm Smith to a five-year deal with $12 million guaranteed, and spent a third-round draft pick on Fred Warner. Foster was released prior to Week 12 of the 2018 season after being arrested for alleged domestic violence. Smith has started just five games in two years due to injuries. Warner is the only one who has either met or exceeded expectations, though the same was said for Foster after his rookie season.
Yet it was second-year linebacker Elijah Lee who played well alongside Warner to close the 2018 season. In five starts, Lee tallied 42 tackles, which coincided with the 49ers defense’s best stretch of the season. Lee was never considered the long-term answer, but he was a durable Band-aid as the 49ers dealt with life after Foster. Alexander will demote Lee to a backup role.
The 49ers valued Warner as a prospect because he’s cerebral and rangy. At 6-foot-1, 227 pounds, Alexander also fits the modern-day linebacker prototype. He flies around the field similar to Foster. In Warner and Alexander, the 49ers have athletic options who can track down ballcarriers and cover the middle of the field.
The 49ers’ linebacker spots are interchangeable. That means both Alexander, who relayed the calls in Tampa Bay, and Warner could start at either the middle or weak-side linebacker positions.
The deal is eye-popping. Alexander will make $13.5 million per year, the highest annual salary for an inside linebacker in NFL history. He will earn $27 million in guarantees.
The 49ers entered Monday with about $66 million in cap space. Even with the Alexander signing, they still have the resources to pursue popular free agent candidates, including free safety Earl Thomas, who seeks a two-year, $30-million deal, and edge rusher Justin Houston, who just turned 30.
We know the initial numbers for Alexander’s contract in guaranteed money, but the additional structural details are unknown. 49ers contract specialist Paraag Marathe has continually incentivized contracts to protect the team in case the player disappoints or doesn’t stay healthy. Until all the details are released, let’s hold off judgment.
“Record contracts” are continually redefined as the salary cap expands each year. Jimmy Garoppolo’s record-breaking five-year, $137.5 million deal was the most lucrative quarterback contract for only a couple weeks.
Free agent linebackers C.J. Mosley and Anthony Barr, who have both made the last four Pro Bowls, will demand even heftier price tags than Alexander. The 49ers were interested in these players, but perhaps the price was too steep. Alexander’s deal with the 49ers will inflate the market.
It makes sense that the 49ers addressed inside linebacker in free agency. The 2019 draft class is particularly weak at the position. After LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush, the talent drops off. It’s unlikely that either player will drop to the 49ers at No. 36 overall. And using the No. 2 overall pick on a linebacker was never a serious option.
The bottom line
49ers fans have regurgitated the team’s need for an edge rusher so constantly, that when the first signing addresses another position, it’s immediately considered head-scratching.
But the 49ers simply need more playmakers all over the field.
Last year, they set all-time lows with seven turnovers and two interceptions. In Alexander’s last full season, 2017, he tallied three interceptions. He has forced at least one fumble in all four NFL seasons.
The 49ers will address their dormant edge rush at some point. They have already prioritized this. They hired defensive line coach Kris Kocurek last month because of his pass-rush principles. Both Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch said at the NFL Combine that the upcoming draft class is as loaded with dynamic defensive linemen as any in recent memory, alluding to their draft-day intentions. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, and Florida State’s Brian Burns are all intriguing options.
The current free agent crop has several defensive end options, though Trey Flowers and Dante Fowler have already been claimed. The 49ers may have to move quickly if they hope to either sign or trade for a top edge rusher, such as Houston or Kansas City’s Dee Ford. The 49ers have expressed interest in Ford, whom the Chiefs franchise-tagged earlier this month.
One thing is clear: the dropoff between Alexander and Lee is smaller than the dropoff between Houston and Cassius Marsh, San Francisco’s leading edge rusher in 2018. The 49ers’ biggest need entering Monday still exists. That doesn’t mean they won’t address it.
But the 49ers have already checked one of their boxes by solidifying the middle of their defense with the Alexander signing. Now, let’s see if they stay aggressive on the free agent market.