49ers 2021 ‘Who is?’ series: Azeez Al-Shaair could lose roster spot
By Peter Panacy
The 49ers’ flurry of moves to improve their linebacker depth this offseason point to third-year pro Azeez Al-Shaair being back on the roster bubble.
Even if a player shows improvement from his rookie year to his second season, it doesn’t come close to guaranteeing that’ll be good enough for him to hang around into a third year.
Such is the case with San Francisco 49ers third-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, who went from an undrafted rookie in 2019 being thrust into a starting role late that year because of injuries, to a seemingly solid rotational backup his second season.
To indicate that improvement, take a look at Pro Football Focus’ overall grades on him the last two years:
- 2019: 42.1
- 2020: 61.0
Al-Shaair ended up contributing more his sophomore season than his rookie year, starting five games instead of the four he began in 2019. And even just looking at the traditional stats, it’s not hard to see the overall improvement either without having to use an objective analysis from a resource like PFF:
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com:
On top of that, Al-Shaair also cut down on the missed tackles, which dogged him his rookie season where he had seven, ultimately having only three last year — a missed-tackle percentage drop from 28.0 to 7.9.
Improvement, right? And considering the Niners aren’t necessarily asking Al-Shaair to assume a prominent starting role, thanks to the presence of linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, keeping the former undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic would seem like a good idea.
Well, perhaps. Except San Francisco spent considerable effort onboarding plenty of additional linebackers, any one of which could potentially pluck Al-Shaair’s job between now and pre-Week 1 roster cuts.
Related Story: 49ers linebacker depth is thin behind Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw
More on that in a second, but let’s take a look at why Al-Shaair could possibly improve because of the added competition.
Why Azeez Al-Shaair improves with 49ers in 2021
On the positive side of things, Al-Shaair will turn just 24 years old this summer, meaning there’s still plenty of physical room left for improvement. And based upon his upward trajectory, both in terms of PFF analysis and physical stats, one might assume Al-Shaair takes that next leap towards being a solid and reliable backup who can start in a pinch.
Cutting down on those missed tackles from years one to two was a massive step in the right direction, and Al-Shaair also demonstrated some significant improvement in his run-stopping abilities.
PFF noted that improvement, too, with his run-defense grades jumping from a lowly 41.8 in 2019 to 70.2 last year.
A third year, fully acclimated to life at the NFL level, only benefits Al-Shaair. And the full rigors of a non-COVID impacted offseason should help him a great deal, too.
Why Azeez Al-Shaair regresses with 49ers in 2021
Al-Shaair might no longer be a tackling liability, and it’s great to see improvement in run defense.
That said, he has yet to demonstrate any pro-level knack for being an above-average pass defender. A year ago, he was credited with allowing over 170 yards after the catch and a significant 10.7 yards per reception.
In contrast, Greenlaw surrendered just 7.8 yards per catch.
Many of the 49ers’ offseason additions at the second level of the defense stressed better pass-coverage skills, including safety Talanoa Hufanga, who could occupy an in-the-box role and enjoyed four interceptions over just six games played with USC last season.
Hufanga, unlike Al-Shaair, epitomizes the current breed of safety/linebacker hybrids who can work effectively enough against the run but are just as competent defending against the pass in a pass-happy league.
If the Niners are asking Al-Shaair to be a quality pass-coverage linebacker, it might be too much.
Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster, expected 2021 impact
Take a look at some of San Francisco’s other additions at linebacker along with the safety, Hufanga:
- Nathan Gerry
- Justin Hilliard*
- Elijah Sullivan*
- James Burgess Jr.
None of these four names are absolute guarantees to make the 53-man roster this season. But just like Al-Shaair being a dark-horse candidate to make the cut in 2019, any one of the aforementioned names could end up taking his spot by Week 1.
Al-Shaair did flash some quality special teams play last season, however, and that works in his favor. And it’s entirely possible all these linebacker adds are merely intended to push him harder towards better improvement in 2021.
If he makes the cut, the No. 3 spot on the depth chart behind Warner and Greenlaw is likely the best fit, spelling both players at various moments and ideally playing in obvious run formations where he can put his above-average run-defense skills to good use.
Ideally, however, Warner and Greenlaw stay fully healthy over the course of the upcoming season, thereby translating into Al-Shaair merely being a reserve and role player.
Should this happen, one can only hope Al-Shaair continues his slow, steady improvement despite finding himself back on the bubble entering 2021.