© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Don’t tell Dre Greenlaw he’s made it.
With Kwon Alexander’s season-ending pectoral tear, Greenlaw has instantly become the 49ers’ new starting weak side linebacker. It’s a monumental task in its own right; replacing the arguably Pro Bowl-level Alexander in a defense that tends to operate with just two linebackers. That’s without the added challenge Greenlaw now faces of adapting to the new position as a rookie before facing the Seattle Seahawks and their MVP candidate, Russell Wilson, who has a 22:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season.
Alexander’s injury also meant the promotion of fellow rookie linebacker, Azeez Al-Shaair as the starting strong side linebacker in 4-3 sets. Neither Greenlaw (the 49ers’ fifth-round selection in the 2019 draft) nor Al-Shaair (undrafted, in part due to an ACL tear in his senior year) were heralded rookies. And while Greenlaw seemed to stamp his place on the roster early on, he said he’s never felt a sense of comfort in his spot.
Part of that discomfort is thanks to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s edict to the defensive rookies following cutdown day that their roster spots were not secure.
“I’ve never stopped [worrying],” Greenlaw said. “I realized right then and there that I had it officially, but I haven’t, still to this day, I haven’t, you know, ‘made the team.’ I guess you could say I’m a player, a starter, but I mean, you never know in this business, so you always just got to be ready, got to be confident and you got to go out there and just do your job.”
Shared tribulations created immediate bond in linebacker room
Now starters, Greenlaw said he and Al-Shaair’s only goal in training camp was to make final roster. The pair had plenty of time to get acquainted as preseason roommates and quickly connected on similar early-life experiences which forced both to grow up quickly.
Greenlaw, born and raised in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was abandoned by his birth family and in and out of group homes as a child. As Matt Barrows of The Athletic reported, Greenlaw was adopted as a 14-year-old in junior high school by the Early family. Brian Early, a coach at the neighboring Fayetteville High, got to know Greenlaw through football and found out his group home was closing, eventually making the decision, while already with two young daughters, to make Greenlaw a part of the family. The full story by Barrows is worth reading.
Al-Shaair was one of nine children and grew up impoverished in Tampa, Florida, as Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle reported. He slept on floors growing up and had to escape a fire with his siblings that burnt his grandmother’s house to the ground. In his senior year at Florida Atlantic University, he tore his ACL, crushing any hopes he had of being drafted. That story by Branch is also worth reading.
“During the spring a lot of times, he was down from the ACL injury and I was playing at the time and we kind of always had each other’s backs, always believing in each other, trying to help each other and push each other up,” Greenlaw said. “And now that we’re both going to be on the field, I think it’s the same way. We kind of look at each other to get that energy, because we know that we’re rookies. We didn’t necessarily see this coming but we both wanted to make sure that we made the team, that we can do whatever we can to get on the field. So I’m sure seeing him out there is gonna give me some extra confidence.”
The pair connected quickly with each other, as well as with Alexander, who Greenlaw called his “big bro,” and who Al-Shaair said is “always in my ear” during defensive meetings.
In Alexander’s rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his 17-year-old brother, Broderick Taylor Jr., was killed by a gunshot less than 48 hours before a Week 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons. Like Al-Shaair, Alexander also tore his ACL last season, before being signed by the 49ers.
Those shared struggles knotted together the linebacking room, a group which Alexander named “Hot Boyzz” after rapper Lil Wayne’s early rap group.
“There’s just something about when you go through certain things,” Greenlaw told KNBR. “You can kind of tell who’s been going through some similar situations as you. So we kind of let it happen, but you already could kind of tell these are guys you’re going to be friends with in the locker room, or going to be somebody that you hang out with outside. So, as time just went on and we began to know more about each other, personalities and things just started clicking.”
Al-Shaair told KNBR going from being an undrafted rookie on the roster bubble has been a “pretty surreal” experience. Still, he pointed out that he and Greenlaw have been surprising people for their entire lives and it’s far from a coincidence. He said he sees his greatest strength as his perseverance.
“I’m not surprised at all, but at the same time, I think it’s humbling to know that a lot of people don’t make it out, don’t make it this far,” Al-Shaair said. “So not surprising by any means, but just blessed enough to know that it’s kind of cool having a guy like Dre, and even a guy like Kwon, people who are around you that you get to talk to, that have been through a lot in life and got a lot of different things going on that you can relate to that maybe the average teammate can’t. So when you first learn about each other’s stories talking to each other and eventually we really got close and it became a real bond.”
Alexander’s “legendary” influence
Every member of that linebacker group visited Alexander following surgery on his torn left labrum following practice on Tuesday, except for Al-Shaair, who had a community service event. Al-Shaair said he later talked with Alexander, who attended practice in street clothes on Friday. His absences from defensive meetings have been uncomfortable.
“Pretty much throughout the whole year—because I sit with him in the meetings—he’s kind of always in my ear and just letting me know different stuff, so it definitely feels weird, like for a few days we’ve been having meetings and he’s not sitting there and he’s not talking to me,” Al-Shaair said. “So it’s an awkward feeling.”
Alexander’s greatest impact may have been on middle linebacker Fred Warner. In his second year, Warner’s taken a jump not just from a performance standpoint, but in his vocality. He acknowledged in the preseason that Alexander had ignited a fire in him and encouraged him to speak up.
“Overall confidence, you know, bringing that swag out of myself,” Warner said Friday. “I kind of wanted to last season as a rookie, but I was kind of unsure still.”
Warner credited the defense’s success as stemming from Alexander’s impact. It’s been evidenced not only on the field, but from a vernacular standpoint. There’s frequently talk by the defense of chasing perfection and Alexander failed to have many discussions with reporters in which he didn’t talk about feeling “legendary.”
It wasn’t a gimmick; Alexander uses “legendary” because he wants to be “better than good.” That mentality hasn’t been lost on his teammates.
“I don’t know if I could really sum it up into words,” Warner said. “It’s kind of something that he since day one, the defense has been what it is a lot because of him. I mean stuff that you can’t really tangibly—you see the stuff behind the scenes that he brings. We’re gonna miss him for sure… outstanding leader, player.”
That impact extends off the field, according to Greenlaw, who expects Alexander to remain on the sidelines providing energy for games.
“Kwon’s been huge for us,” Greenlaw said. “He’s like my big bro. He tells me the ins and outs of the game, how to take care of my body. Not just on the field, off the field. He’s kind of like the older guy that everybody kind of looks up to. He’s also the communicator, the talking guy, he gets the juices flowing. He’s the energy guy.”
Fred Warner at the helm
The only person Alexander trailed in tackles (34 combined) before his injury was Warner, who leads the team with 48 combined tackles. He forced the first turnover of the year in the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccanneers with a violent punch that shot the ball out of tight end O.J. Howard’s hands.
Greenlaw said he felt a sense of confidence in taking over Alexander’s duties, in part due to having Warner beside him. That was something he didn’t have in the preseason, when he was mostly working with the second or third units and at the SAM spot.
“Fred, he’s definitely one of our leaders on the team,” Greenlaw said. “Just watching his last year’s film to this year’s film, just a big difference of how far he’s come and his knowledge of the game is unreal man. He knows the X’s and O’s, he knows what the offense is going to throw at him. I mean, he gets better and better every game, so just watching from what he did from last year to this year, it gives me a lot of confidence that I’m gonna make mistakes, but at the same time, I’m going to get better too.”
Warner said his approach doesn’t change with Alexander out. Following a performance on Thursday night against the Arizona Cardinals that the defense viewed as substandard—highlighted by a late, missed-tackle infused 88-yard touchdown by Cardinals wide receiver Andy Isabella—Warner, much like Saleh said, saw lapses in concentration and correctable mistakes like assignment miscues and missed tackles.
The second-year linebacker will be responsible for overseeing the defense and correcting those errors against the Wilson-led Seahawks, but he dismissed suggestions that he’d have to compensate for Alexander’s absence.
“I’m not gonna go out and be somebody I’m not,” Warner said. “I’m just going to keep being myself. I feel I bring energy the group too. I’m just focused on trying to be the best version of myself.”
Prime time for the young ‘backers
In the preseason, Saleh had been typically hesitant to praise his young players too much, pointing out that Greenlaw could be “too instinctive” at times and Al-Shaair needed to work on his alignment. He said Friday that he’s seen improvement from both.
“They’ve had really good growth,” Saleh said. “Dre’s done a really nice job because he’s had reps, he’s had game reps, he’s been able to go through it. He’s got to continue to stay consistent and go through all of it. There are going to be some new things that happen to him. He’s a rookie, he’s seeing real-life, game action.
I mean he did it in Tampa, but he’s going to get tested and how he bounces back from that, how he responds to it, how he plays those moments are going to be all learning experiences. Even if he does well, it’s going to be a learning experience. He’s got to stay focused, stay on this task, execute the techniques, make sure that this thing doesn’t get too big for him and go execute and I think he will.”
The message from Greenlaw and Al-Shaair was that they don’t have to, nor should they try and change their game with Alexander out.
“It’s not really my job to go out there and fill his shoes,” Greenlaw said. “It’s just my job to go out there and and do my job and do what I’m supposed to do.”
Greenlaw said he expects teams to target him because he’s a rookie, but that he feels no added pressure.
He admitted he was “slightly, slightly hesitant” when replacing Alexander at the WILL spot against the Cardinals due to his lack of reps there. He said he had weekly film preparation at the WILL spot, but hadn’t practiced at the position until this week.
There was little concern from Warner about having to help Greenlaw key in to his assignments, or that he would lack some sort of capability on the field.
“I wouldn’t really call it a burden,” Warner said. “I feel like Dre is very smart. I already feel like him, like guys like him and Azeez, I kind of take under my arm trying to help them along. So with Dre, I feel like a little extra study time, it’s not gonna be too big of a deal. I feel. I think he’s gonna be A-OK…
“Dre, he’s an outstanding player, outstanding athlete. He goes out there and makes plays, flies around. I think for him, it’s just going to be keeping up every single day, you know, with what we’re doing, what offense they’re going to be throwing at him. He’s gonna just do it, do his job and be himself.”
Defensive end Dee Ford was equally bullish on Greenlaw’s talent.
“They need to know that he’s going to get to the ball,” Ford said. “He’s going to make plays. And he’s a special young talent. His play will speak for itself, he will jump out on tape.”
But if it’s humility and a zealous work ethic that got Greenlaw and Al-Shaair to this point, it’s surely hasn’t faded. If they surprise anyone on Monday, it wouldn’t be anything new.
“I think me and Dre, just our stories and our life in general surprised a lot of people, even in our own family, how far we’ve come,” Al-Shaair said. “So, not to go out there and shock the world but just to go out there and just play ball do what we do.”