SF 49ers: Why backup linebacker training camp battle was crucial

Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The SF 49ers’ depth at linebacker will be crucial for 2020 especially with limited offseason practice.

The SF 49ers have already had their fair share of injuries before Week 1. This has meant the coaching staff and front office have had to get creative with additions and releasing players to make sure that there are enough wide receivers, for example, to get through training camp.

One of the positions the staff will have to get right is linebacker.

Especially now that Fred Warner is on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Dre Greenlaw is just coming off the concussion protocol. The depth behind those two, Warner and Greenlaw, and Kwon Alexander could well be counted on to continue the stellar play that those three contributed with last season.

The one linebacker who is in prime position to step up and fill a void is second-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, who played in 15 games in 2019, starting four of those when Kwon Alexander was missing with a pectoral injury for the latter half of the year.

Al-Shaair was an undrafted free agent in 2019. And after impressing everyone in preseason, the SF 49ers had no choice but to put him on the 53-man roster or risk losing him to another team via a waiver claim, which would have prevented him from being stashed on the practice squad.

Al-Shaair didn’t play to the level many expected he would after his preseason exploits, however. Yet one must acknowledge he was a UDFA and that was his first season, so the hope is he will improve with increased game time and opportunities if he makes the Niners’ 53-man roster this season, especially now that Warner and Greenlaw have slight risks for Week 1 associated with them. In theory, this would allow Al-Shaair the opportunity to start with Alexander at linebacker against a first-team unit, which will only increase Al-Shaair’s ability to learn and improve.

Going up against head coach Kyle Shanahan in practice should help boost Al-Shaair’s mental capacity and ability to read, react and understand what a high-level offensive coordinator will do to you to exploit weaknesses.

SF 49ers’ other linebackers in the mix for a roster spot

The other two contenders, who will almost exclusively play special teams and not much defense unless there is an emergency, are Joe Walker and Mark Nzeocha.

Nzeocha has been part of the SF 49ers since 2017 and is entering his sixth NFL season, originally a seventh-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2015. After spending two seasons with the Cowboys, the Niners brought him aboard to bolster their special teams presence, eventually signing him through 2021. He has been primarily used on special teams, with him often being praised for his impact as a key member of special teams coordinator Richard Hightower’s unit.

However, the one area that perhaps hampers Nzeocha is his cap hit of $1.5 million, and San Francisco has just over $8.5 million in cap space, per Over the Cap.

The 49ers can save $600,000 in cap space by cutting Nzeocha and by keeping inside linebacker Joe Walker. Walker only counts $900,000 against the cap.

Yes, it might not seem much. And yes, it probably won’t allow the SF 49ers to go out and sign another difference-maker. But it gives the team a bit more wiggle room further down the road.

Walker played at least one snap on defense in 13 out of 16 games, starting 11, for the Arizona Cardinals last season, and he played almost every snap on defense in the last four games of 2019. He would give the 49ers versatility, as Walker averaged playing 70 percent of the Cardinals’ special teams snaps in 2019, whilst also averaging 47 percent of the defensive snaps.

Being a key member of the Cardinals special teams unit will increase Walker’s likelihood of making the Niners roster, especially considering Nzeocha played only 2.5 percent of their defensive snaps, compared to Walker’s average of 47 percent.

Nzeocha averaged playing 76 percent of the 49ers’ special teams snaps last season, and comparing that to Walker’s average of 70 percent allows San Francisco to save some cap room whilst not losing any versatility, toughness, or experience.

With two of the trio of Al-Shaair, Walker, and Nzeocha making the roster, only Al-Shaair can be the most certain of a place, with the final spot coming down to a toss-up between Walker, who would save the 49ers some potentially vital cap room, and Nzeocha, who would give them continuity especially with his special teams play.

Each 49ers rookie's odds of making 53-man roster in 2020. dark. Next

We will all find out on Sept. 5 when the Niners make cuts to trim their roster down from 80 players to the final 53-man roster that will take on the Cardinals in Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season.