49ers 2021 ‘Who is?’ series: ‘Big play’ Dre Greenlaw resurgence

While still effective his second season, 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw appeared to take a step back in 2020, but look for him to rebound in 2021.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw might end up having to play in the big shadow of his linebacking teammate, All-Pro Fred Warner, and that’s a situation that might not change for a long, long time.

And it’s probably not going to be the case where Greenlaw pairs with Warner in a way not unlike what the Niners had a decade ago with legendary linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman either.

That said, San Francisco’s fifth-round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft has fully cemented himself as a starter, and there’s little reason to question that heading into his third year at the pro level.

Yet there were some small but noticeable signs of regression last year, not necessarily reflected in the pure stats. And while it can be common for second-year players to experience some minor setbacks, the hope now moving forward is Greenlaw can take that next step in his development.

Dre Greenlaw Defense & Fumbles Table
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/18/2021.


There were plenty of instances where Greenlaw’s run defense wasn’t quite as sharp as it was in 2019, and he saw a small increase in missed tackles, too. Even his pass-coverage skills, one of the linebacker’s best traits coming out of Arkansas, weren’t quite as on par with what he flashed his rookie season.

Hopefully, however, all those traits wind up trending back in the right direction, and we take a look at why in Niner Noise’s next “Who is?” installment.


Why Dre Greenlaw improves with 49ers in 2021

A couple of notes on the regression here. For starters, Pro Football Focus docked Greenlaw’s overall grade down from 64.0 in 2019 to 59.8 last season. It’s relatively small but noticeable, not unlike Greenlaw’s slight decline.

He had one more missed tackle last year than last, which isn’t terrible, but the big concern was seeing opponents’ net passer rating jump from 83.6 when targeting him in 2019 to 102.3 last year. That’s a sizable jump and a potential cause for concern.

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Yet one of the reasons why this could be the case, also suggesting why he’ll improve, is the 49ers’ lack of an effective pass rush last year amid all those injuries suffered up front.

Getting a player like EDGE Nick Bosa back fully healthy can’t be understated, as it’ll ultimately cut down on the time players like Greenlaw are going to be in coverage.

Eventually, if there’s enough time, the receiver wins out. Look for that time to diminish in 2021.


Why Dre Greenlaw regresses with 49ers in 2021

Despite the relatively lackluster pass-coverage efforts last year, Greenlaw’s similar decline in run support can’t exactly be equated to the number of injuries the team suffered along its defensive line a year ago. For the most part, the Niners were still an effective run-stopping team, and Greenlaw not always taking the correct angles against running backs can’t entirely be pegged on the linemen in front of him.

If you want a prime example of these gaffes, go back and look at San Francisco’s Week 10 matchup against the New Orleans Saints. It wasn’t pretty.

There’s always the chance — and it might be more appropriate to call it a risk — Greenlaw far exceeded his expectations in 2019, mainly thanks to some of his heroics in both regular-season games against the Seattle Seahawks.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be overly shocking either if Greenlaw settles back to being a quality special teams ace who is a below-average starting option on defense.


Projected outlook with 49ers in 2021

The 49ers onboarded a number of linebackers during the offseason — Nathan Gerry, Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hilliard, to name a few — but none figure to challenge Greenlaw for a starting bid. Those names are more intended to provide special teams depth and to compete with the Niners’ No. 3 option at the position on the depth chart, Azeez Al-Shaair.

Greenlaw has mostly enjoyed a clean slate of health. As such, the only reason why he’d be ousted from the starting lineup between now and Week 1 would be because of a complete flameout during training camp.

Possible. Just not likely.

For now, the only question is the direction in which Greenlaw is heading. Can he trend back towards being “Big Play” Dre, the player we all saw stop Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister in the waning seconds of Week 17 back in 2019? Or is Greenlaw suffering from the same kind of post-rookie setbacks other San Francisco players endured in recent years, such as former 49ers like wide receiver Dante Pettis and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon?

The context might be more important for Greenlaw here, though. Especially considering just how banged up an ever-changing defensive depth chart was a year ago.

Solidify that, and there’s a good chance Greenlaw winds up returning to being a high-quality starter again this season.