49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles’ new role
By Peter Panacy
49ers linebacker Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles could see a regular role in 2020 after his practice squad rookie season.
A year ago during the preseason, San Francisco 49ers then-rookie linebacker Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles showed enough promise to warrant placement on the team’s practice squad heading into 2019.
Simply put, there wasn’t any room for the 6-foot-2, 210-pound former collegiate safety to find a spot on the regular-season depth chart. Not with the trio of starting-caliber linebackers — Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw — and not with the solid safety duo of Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt and the depth behind them.
But Flannigan-Fowles could put himself into a much better position with the year of development now under his belt.
And given today’s pass-happy league where hybrid-type linebacker-safeties are important, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Flannigan-Fowles carve out a spot for himself on the Niners’ 53-man roster.
To understand this, one has to go back to his college days at Arizona, where he primarily served as a strong-side safety:
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Had Flannigan-Fowles come declared after his junior year, there’s a good chance he would have been selected late in the 2018 NFL Draft. Electing to return, however, his senior year wasn’t exceptionally great, which ultimately led to him being an undrafted free-agent signee by San Francisco.
But one can recognize Flannigan-Fowles’ knack for getting in the way of the ball, evidenced by the seven passes broken up his senior year.
That kind of play might be crucial if he expects to make that next leap from a camp body and practice-squad player onto the regular-season roster.
Why Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles improves with 49ers in 2020
It’s important to note Flannigan-Fowles ran a 4.58 40-yard time back during his 2019 pro day, which is solid for a strong safety of his body type.
This speed undoubtedly contributed to his ability to knock down passes thrown his way, and Pro Football Focus was quick to recognize the safety’s efforts:
Flannigan-Fowles isn’t the most dynamic run stopper, and he won’t offer too much by the way of a pass-rush. Given his role, however, he probably wouldn’t be asked to blitz often anyway, allowing him to utilize his best strength: pass coverage.
The Niners have a number of players who can fill this role. But Flannigan-Fowles might be able to capitalize on it with a strong training camp and preseason.
Why Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles regresses with 49ers in 2020
Despite the promise, there are a number of players ahead of Flannigan-Fowles on the depth chart.
Both Greenlaw and Warner have coverage-type abilities, and there’s almost zero chance either is bumped down the depth chart due to anything else other than injury. Additionally, Azeez Al-Shaair, Jonas Griffith, Mark Nzeocha and Joe Walker are some of the other names competing with Flannigan-Fowles for reps during camp. Al-Shaair and Nzeocha have favor with the 49ers already, and Walker was one of the team’s few free-agent signees from the offseason.
Flannigan-Fowles has to outperform at least two or three of the names on the depth chart behind San Francisco’s starting trio to stand a chance, and the lack of second-team reps could ultimately hurt his chances.
Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster in 2020
Flannigan-Fowles enjoyed a productive 2019 preseason campaign with one interception and two passes broken up over four games played. He’ll either need to match those efforts again this preseason or better them in order to stand a chance.
Yet there’s a reason to look at what could be an important role here.
Hybrid safety/linebacker types are valuable in today’s NFL. And considering the Niners might lose their starting strong safety, Tartt, to free agency in 2021, it might be worth investing a little more development time into Flannigan-Fowles to see if he could potentially be at least a prime backup to whoever replaces Tartt, should the veteran walk.
One name to watch in this camp competition is Al-Shaair, who performed well enough on special teams in 2019 but struggled when asked to handle defensive duties, particularly against the run.
If Flannigan-Fowles brings over his collegiate pass-defense accolades and reputation, then pairs it with an above-average run-stopping ability, there’s a good chance he winds up getting the nod over Al-Shaair and serves as a niche piece for San Francisco in pass-heavy defenses.
Flannigan-Fowles is still on the roster bubble, perhaps on the weaker side of it. But he looks to be a much stronger candidate to make the cut this year than he did last season, which is a notable bonus.