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The wrong question is being asked about the 49ers’ linebacker competition

© Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Who is going to start next to Fred Warner in Week 1? All of a sudden, there is a debate about whether it will be Kwon Alexander or Dre Greenlaw. That seems to stem from a few places:

  1. Greenlaw had a standout rookie season, and due to Alexander’s torn pectoral muscle, became the starter down the stretch and through most of the playoffs
  2. When Alexander did return (far too soon), he looked horrible because he was far from 100 percent
  3. In a conference call on May 20, Greenlaw was asked about potentially being the weak side starting linebacker, in which he said, coaches “haven’t told me anything”
  4. It’s the offseason, we all have too much time on our hands, and there are very few sports to watch

Greenlaw is a fantastic player, and I would expect that he takes over as the starting WILL linebacker by 2021, and maybe even during this season.

But Alexander’s form post-injury may have created false notions about just how skilled he is. Before tearing his pectoral, there was an easy case to be made that he was the most valuable player on the defense. His speed and coverage abilities allowed the 49ers to stick confidently to nickel sets, a massive part of the reason they had arguably the best pass defense in the NFL. In the run game, he used that speed to cut down angles relentlessly.

The catch-22 there is that his speed and tackling veracity caused his almost season-ending injury, and Alexander also had surgery this offseason on a torn bicep. You can’t take offseason workout videos at face value, especially when they’re non-contact, but based on the copious amount that Alexander has posted on his Instagram, it’s hard to expect he won’t be ready for training camp.

And that’s really the only way Greenlaw wins the job; if Alexander isn’t healthy. The 49ers are paying Alexander too much, and he’s too dynamic of a player to be saddled as the third in the rotation, and only implemented on 4-3 sets, unless Greenlaw looks like an All-Pro player in camp.

Alexander will make $4,572,769 this year, per OverTheCap, almost all of which is guaranteed or easily guaranteed money. After this season, Alexander has $10,419,067 in guaranteed money remaining on his deal, along with cosmically-large salary figures of $16,521,440 and $16,621,440 in 2021 and 2022. It features three voidable years, only two of which include prorated bonus money meaning, after 2020, there are effectively two dead years on his deal. The team took the same approach with Weston Richburg, per OverTheCap, who has two voidable years worth a combined $2,331,142.

It opens up space in the short term, and generally speaking, in the long-term. But, just like with the Patriots’ voidable-year extension of Tom Brady, the cash from those voidable years gets pushed into the first available year if a player is cut or not re-signed. In other words, the $2,054,735 of prorated bonus money due to Alexander in 2024 will join the $2,121,444 of prorated bonus money due to him in 2023 if he leaves, for a total cap hit of $4,176,179.

This is all to say, it’s Alexander’s job to lose, and it doesn’t much matter who starts at the WILL spot, but if Greenlaw wins the job, it would likely bely that Alexander’s long-term health is a major concern, and the 49ers would be likely have to cut him or re-work his deal in the following offseason.

The greater, and exponentially less sexy question is, who is behind that trio of Warner, Alexander and Greenlaw? There are technically six candidates, led by four names, fighting for probably two spots. Given that the 49ers mostly play nickel, finding reliable depth at linebacker behind those top three is crucial.

Joe Walker, 27, whose name is, of no fault of his own, painfully unremarkable and therefore hard to remember, is in the mix after being signed as a free agent from Arizona (I have nothing against Walker, or his name, only that I am currently unable to confidently recall it without the use of Google). He’s a strong, patient, hard-working type, and effective special-teamer who had his career year last season after being drafted in the seventh round in 2014. He played with Arik Armstead back at Oregon.

There’s Azeez Al-Shaair, 23, who was mostly limited to special teams last season, but flashed his speed and instinctual tackling ability after being the third-most prolific tackler in the NCAA in his junior year (146 tackles).

Mark Nzeocha, 30, is the favorite of special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, and appeared like a fine reserve option, but might be older than the 49ers are looking for and would save the team about $750k in each of the next two seasons if he was cut.

Jonas Griffith, 23, undrafted out of Indiana State, is an exciting option. He’s got a muscly frame coupled with high college production and downhill speed. He struggles side-to-side, and in a potentially abbreviated training camp, might not get enough of a chance to make the roster. If he doesn’t make the team, he’s a near-lock to make the practice squad.

You also have Joey Alfieri, 24, out of Stanford, and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, 23, from Arkansas, both off the team’s practice squad. While it’s a tight competition for two spots, and they’re the most unlikely candidates to make the roster, ruling out anyone before minicamps have even begun isn’t all that productive of an exercise.

The most likely option, based on the fact that the 49ers often opt for speed and youth, but probably need some veteran experience at linebacker, is that one of Nzeocha or Walker make the roster, as a reliable, veteran, special teams option, along with one of Al-Shaair and Griffiths, as the high-upside, youth backup, who also plays special teams.


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