49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Can Dre Greenlaw back up 2019 campaign?

Dre Greenlaw #57 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
Dre Greenlaw #57 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

Second-year 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw will look to build upon his impressive rookie campaign heading into 2020.

It’s almost funny to think San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw received this scouting report from Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller just after being selected in Round 5 of the 2019 NFL Draft:

"He has the kind of athleticism that screams “Will” linebacker, but he lacks any counterpunch when engaged with offensive linemen. Greenlaw is too comfortable dancing around blocks and will struggle to compete physically in the NFL if his play style doesn’t improve while he develops functional strength. Greenlaw’s best bet is to land somewhere as a coverage backer that provides special teams value while he builds his body to compete against professionals."

In fairness to Miller, the former Arkansas Razorback didn’t look too much more than a promising reserve linebacker and special teams ace at the pro level. Although early in training camp his rookie season, Greenlaw’s prowess on the field quickly earned him recognition as a player who would soon surpass his draft expectations.

That was all before fellow linebacker Kwon Alexander, the team’s starting WILL linebacker, suffered a torn pectoral in Week 9 against the Arizona Cardinals. Thrust into a starting role, Greenlaw didn’t hold back.

And all he did was finish with 92 tackles, second only on San Francisco’s defense to fellow linebacker Fred Warner, a sack, two passes broken up, a key interception in the 49ers’ near win in Week 10 versus the Seattle Seahawks and one of the best plays in recent Niners history against those Seahawks in Week 17:

That play saved the NFC West for San Francisco, also guaranteeing Greenlaw and his teammates the No. 1 seed in the conference entering the playoffs.

Yet there was so much more to Greenlaw’s game than just a crucial goal-line tackle, and Niner Noise breaks down what is at stake for his second year at the NFL level in our latest installment of our annual “Who Is?” series.

Why Dre Greenlaw improves with 49ers in 2020

There’s an adage about players seeing their biggest leap of improvement from years one and two at the pro level, meaning Greenlaw is in excellent position to climb the ranks heading into 2020.

A year ago, Pro Football Focus gave him a respectable 63.9 overall grade, which helped him receive a spot on the Professional Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team for 2019. Missed tackles weren’t a problem — he had only four during the regular season — and neither was coverage, as opposing quarterbacks posted a 83.6 passer rating when targeting him.

There is some room to get better, yes, namely on being more effective at stopping the run and taking better angles.

But the gist of Greenlaw’s improvement needs would merely be to emerge as more of a playmaker, which isn’t hard to envision.

Alongside one of the league’s best linebacking trios, this shouldn’t be a hard thing to do.

Why Dre Greenlaw regresses with 49ers in 2020

While many a player makes a leap in his second year, others can suffer regressions. In 2018, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and linebacker Reuben Foster both suffered serious regression campaigns a year after they were drafted. Wide receiver Dante Pettis endured the same kind of sophomore season, too, perhaps much worse than Witherspoon and Foster.

It’s hard to quantify this, of course, other than the proverbial “wait and see” approach.

Greenlaw could be the victim of some extra targets this season, particularly with teams wanting to stay away from San Francisco’s best linebacker, Warner, meaning the second-year pro will have to experience much more pressure to execute players.

And that’ll ultimately prove whether or not Greenlaw’s 2019 efforts were a mere anomaly or a sign of things to come.

Dre Greenlaw’s projected role with 49ers in 2020

San Francisco got Alexander back in time for the playoffs, meaning this trio of backers will be fully healthy heading into 2020.

In base downs, Greenlaw will likely revert back to a starting strong-side (SAM) linebacker. But given the prevalence of three-wide offensive formations, nickel defensive alignments with two linebackers means the SAM will be eliminated from roughly two-thirds of defensive snaps.

This doesn’t equate to Greenlaw not seeing a lot of time, however, as one would expect defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to regularly rotate his linebackers to keep them fresh and rested. A year ago, Saleh tweaked the defense to make his linebackers more of the “stack” variety and backing off from the line of scrimmage. As a result, the three spots are much more interchangeable.

The change meant Greenlaw, Warner and Alexander could easily rotate from WILL, SAM and MIKE spots with relative ease.

Over the long run, Greenlaw could eventually make an aging and more-expensive linebacker like Alexander a bit expendable, which might be something the salary cap-pressed Niners may have to think about in coming seasons.

For 2020, however, Greenlaw should revert back to the same kind of role he enjoyed and thrived in last season.

Next. 3 underhyped 49ers rookies entering 2020 training camp. dark

That’s not bad for San Francisco one bit.