49ers’ 2019 ‘Who Is?’ series: Linebacker Kwon Alexander

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 15: Kwon Alexander #58 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on during the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on August 15, 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Buccaneers 26-16. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 15: Kwon Alexander #58 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on during the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on August 15, 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Buccaneers 26-16. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers signed linebacker Kwon Alexander to a lucrative free-agent deal in 2019 despite coming off an ACL tear last year. What does he have to offer to the red and gold this season?

The San Francisco 49ers‘ swing and miss on former linebacker Reuben Foster in the 2017 NFL Draft hurt in a number of ways, and it ultimately led to general manager John Lynch grabbing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander when he hit the open free-agent market in March of 2019.

To the tune of four years and $54 million dollars.

That’s a pretty expensive mistake, in terms of Foster. Yet the Niners are getting a key playmaker on the defensive side of the ball, which should cut into the numerous linebacking problems coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense dealt with for much of 2018.

Yet Alexander is coming off a torn ACL last season, which limited him to eight games. With the 49ers slated to visit the Bucs in Week 1, it appears as if Alexander is banking on being healthy for the regular season.

If so, how will Alexander wind up improving San Francisco’s defense? And while few like to think about it, what would be the key reasons why he regresses this season?

Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series takes a look at both sides of the coin.

Why Kwon Alexander Improves in 2019

Alexander is still just 24 years old and will turn 25 just before the regular season begins. So it’s safe to say he’s still honing his game and has yet to reach his prime.

And looking at the numbers, one can see why the 49ers wanted a player like Alexander in the ranks:

Kwon Alexander Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/6/2019.

Note the league-leading 108 tackles from 2016. That was when head coach Kyle Shanahan was the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, and he had some notable things to say about game planning against Alexander, via the team’s website:

"He taught me a hard lesson that you’d better game plan for him. It was so bad that (Atlanta Falcons wide receiver) Julio (Jones) asked me after the game if he could play fullback and block him. So I knew I needed a better plan the next time."

Alexander, despite a down year in 2018, is better known as a coverage linebacker. Between 2016 and 2017, Pro Football Focus gave him pass-coverage grades of 72.8 and 72.5, respectively. Those efforts are valuable in today’s pass-happy NFL, which will often include short-area passes to tight ends and running backs.

One would guess Alexander should be able to handle these open-field plays well enough. And given the strong pass-coverage skills from his linebacking mate, Fred Warner, Alexander won’t be asked to do it all in this regard.

Why Kwon Alexander Regresses in 2019

Alexander does come with a serious knock against his game: tackling.

Per PFF, Alexander has missed 78 tackles since entering the league, and his 2017 tackling efficiency ranked second worst out of 60 qualifying linebackers with at least 50 percent of the maximum 1,055 defensive snaps that year.

The trend has been there for much of Alexander’s career. Now, he’ll be heading to a run-heavy NFC West, boasting tailbacks like the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson and Seattle Seahawks’ Chris Carson.

Alexander has never had a PFF run-defense grade at 60.0, or above, in any of his four seasons at the pro level. And that number could take an even bigger hit, considering his ACL tear and the rigors it can cause for sideline-to-sideline movement.

There’s a chance, despite Alexander’s upside, he ends up lacking the explosiveness and reaction skills necessary to improve his run-defense and tackling skills.

Perhaps they bounce back adequately enough, but it has to be mentioned as a concern.

Potential Fit with the 49ers

San Francisco is planning on inserting Alexander into the weak-side (WILL) linebacker spot, with Warner taking the middle (MIKE) position. The only difference between the two is the MIKE ends up calling the defensive plays.

Otherwise, they’re interchangeable, although WILL linebackers tend to be more responsible for open-field plays — the kind of playmaking, splash plays linebackers dream of making.

Alexander has done this over his career before, and it’s likely he’ll be asked to do more of the same again.

Assuming he returns healthy, there’s a good chance he’ll wind up being an every-down linebacker, unless he winds up showing some rust or discomfort against the run. This could, feasibly, open up the possibility of Alexander seeing the field more on passing downs, while some of San Francisco’s other run-stuffing linebackers, such as Malcolm Smith, handle those duties.

That wouldn’t be the ideal situation, of course. The 49ers aren’t paying Alexander that kind of money for situational roles.

Either way, San Francisco is banking on a highly productive campaign from Alexander this season, especially given his knack for handling pass-coverage duties on a regular basis.

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