The San Francisco 49ers experienced some exceptional linebacker play in 2019, and this unit should be even better in 2020 considering the performance and depth.
While the San Francisco 49ers don’t have too many offseason needs heading into 2020, most positions on the roster could use and will face some minor tweaks between now and the start of the regular season.
One of the units which doesn’t need any help and likely won’t see any notable changes is at linebacker, where the Niners saw some exceptional play last year.
Three players at this spot — Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw — all made significant contributions over the course of 2019. Alexander, the elder statesman of the group, missed the latter half of the regular season after tearing his pectoral on Halloween against the Arizona Cardinals. Yet he was able to return in time for the playoffs.
Alexander’s injury opened up the door for San Francisco’s 2019 fifth-round NFL Draft pick, Greenlaw, who far outpaced the general expectation level for a day-three draft selection.
As such, Greenlaw trailed only Warner in team tackles, 92 to 118, respectively. And few were more important than the rookie’s game-saving tackle on the goal line in the waning seconds of the 49ers’ Week 17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Pro Football Focus ended up ranking Greenlaw as the league’s No. 23 overall linebacker out of 89 qualifiers. Warner, meanwhile, was 34th and Alexander was 65th. Although the sheer grade given to Alexander doesn’t totally quantify his importance.
Simply put, the trio’s presence was one of the top reasons why San Francisco owned the league’s No. 8 overall scoring defense in 2019.
Heading into 2020, there’s little reason to suspect this position won’t get even better than it was last year. Greenlaw will turn 23 years old this spring, while Warner is still just 23 years old himself. Alexander, meanwhile, will turn 26 years old before the start of the regular season.
NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco summed up this position group:
This position group is comprised of players who are all ascending. The unit was good in 2019. It should be better in 2020.
Warner was one of the breakout stars for the 49ers as a second-year player. He had an interception of Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl that looked, at the time, to be one of the big plays in that game. Warner believes he can make improvements in all areas, including the production of more game-changing types of plays.
Alexander sustained a torn pectoral in the middle of the season. Then, worked hard to get back for the playoffs. Although he settled back into the 49ers’ defense as a part-time player, Alexander still served an important role on the team due to his leadership and energy.
The Niners don’t have too many offseason questions to ask at linebacker, either. The only pending free agent is Elijah Lee, who saw just 41 defensive snaps last season and was primarily used on special teams.
Lee is a solid backup, yet the 49ers could look to other backups, Mark Nzeocha and Azeez Al-Shaair, instead of making an effort to re-sign Lee. Yet Lee likely won’t command too much in free agency, perhaps a minimum contract as Maiocco suggested, which would provide some experience and flexibility at the position.
San Francisco still will want to guard against injuries in 2020, after all.
Still, the Niners should look to their linebackers as an anchor point for the team’s defense this upcoming season. While the 49ers defensive line received plenty of the credit last season, one could argue the linebackers surpasses expectations even more.
Don’t expect that to change or be any different this upcoming season.