The San Francisco 49ers have their starting crop of linebackers figured out in 2020, but Elijah Lee and Azeez Al-Shaair could battle it out for a key depth role.
Last year, the San Francisco 49ers relied heavily on their depth to make up for a number of injuries over the course of the regular season and into the playoffs.
One of the most prominent injuries was to veteran linebacker Kwon Alexander, whose torn pectoral against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 31 was initially seen as a season-ending setback. Alexander eventually returned for the postseason, but the Niners were forced into starting then-rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw, also banking on increased production from another rookie, Azeez Al-Shaair.
Warner, Greenlaw and Alexander figure to be the starting cast entering 2020. But one could make the argument there’s room for either Lee or Al-Shaair entering the upcoming season. Granted, Lee is a restricted free agent. There’s the possibility San Francisco elects not to tender him, although the low tender seems to be a modest option to reinforce the depth at a position where injuries existed a year ago.
If this winds up being the case, who would win out between Lee and Al-Shaair?
Lee played just 41 defensive snaps last season, which is the contrast to Al-Shaair’s 174. But Lee has a much longer track record of contributing on special teams. While Al-Shaair saw more special teams snaps than Lee in 2019 (239 to 179), the latter’s previous experience makes a difference.
Especially considering Pro Football Focus’ grading system, which gave Lee a solid 74.3 overall grade, whereas Al-Shaair earned a lowly 42.1 mark and was generally a liability on defense during the snaps he saw.
There are some additional wrinkles, however, outside of the question whether or not San Francisco wants to tender Lee.
For starters, Al-Shaair was an undrafted rookie last season, so some of the growing pains at the NFL level are to be expected. If he makes a significant jump from last year into this training camp, that should answer any and all questions about this position battle. Al-Shaair would be both cheaper and younger.
At the same time, though, one shouldn’t overlook the fact Lee started five games for the Niners in 2018, taking away starting duties from veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith, who was one of the team’s top free-agent signings the previous year. And by most accounts, Lee held his own in that late-season fill-in role.
That adds weight to the notion Lee can beat out Al-Shaair this offseason, especially if he flashes prowess on both special teams and with the defensive backups during training camp.
Yet San Francisco would have to tender him first, which could give a much better indication what the future holds for these two linebackers.