49ers roster: Injured players returning creates a lot of logjams

Jaquiski Tartt #29 and Dre Greenlaw #57 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Jaquiski Tartt #29 and Dre Greenlaw #57 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

The 49ers may get some injury reinforcements back in the very near future, but that creates some notable question marks about the depth chart pecking order.

This week, the San Francisco 49ers will open up the practice window for two of their key injured starters, linebacker Dre Greenlaw and safety Jaquiski Tartt.

Greenlaw, who has been out with a groin injury since Week 1, has slowly worked his way back towards coming off injured reserve. Tartt, having been dealt a bone bruise to his knee, went on IR shortly after suffering the injury in Week 7 against the Indianapolis Colts.

Veteran wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (knee) has at least two more games before he can come off IR, but the back end of the Niners’ depth chart at his position is awfully crowded, too.

It’s a good problem for San Francisco to have. Especially considering the inevitability of injuries elsewhere on the roster. At the same time, though, returning players like Greenlaw, Tartt and eventually Sanu might force head coach Kyle Shanahan to make some awfully tough decisions, both in terms of the depth chart and who stays on the 53-man roster going forward.

Should 49ers stay with Talanoa Hufanga over Jaquiski Tartt?

One of the natural benefits of injuries is it can open up the door for other players to show their value, especially if a team potentially envisions the stepping-up player to fill a bigger long-term role.

This is certainly the case for Tartt’s possible long-term replacement, rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga, whose energy on the field is undeniable and was also clutch in the 49ers’ one-sided Week 10 win over the Los Angeles Rams, earning a season-best 75.5 Pro Football Focus game grade in the process.

For the Niners, it’s a trade-off. Tartt does make the defense better, notably because of his experience and quality coverage skills when he’s on the field. His chemistry with free safety Jimmie Ward (they played together in high school) is undeniable, too.

Yet Tartt, often injured anyway, isn’t signed through 2022. Hufanga, a first-year pro, seems targeted to be the long-term replacement even though there are likely to be plenty more of the youngish mistakes developing players have.

Again, a good problem for San Francisco to have. But a tough question to answer nonetheless.

Will 49ers revert back to Dre Greenlaw with Azeez Al-Shaair playing well?

The 49ers have a larger sample size with Greenlaw’s fill-in replacement, third-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, who finds himself second on the team in tackles with 60 and only behind All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.

And it isn’t as if Al-Shaair, the envisioned starting strong-side (SAM) linebacker who’d come off the field in nickel packages, is merely around the ball for tackles a lot more in Greenlaw’s absence. In many cases, including six of nine games where he’s posted a better-than 60.0 PFF grade, Al-Shaair has been a playmaking defender, already having notched as many pass breakups (three) and fumble recoveries (one) as Warner this deep into the season.

Al-Shaair, a restricted free agent in 2022, might be a bit too expensive for the Niners to retain, especially with Greenlaw under full rookie-contract control for another season, yet it’s possible San Francisco lets Al-Shaair retain a starting linebacker spot until proven otherwise.

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Again, another tough question.

There will be other challenging questions, too, such as which wide receiver the 49ers elect to jettison off the 53-man roster when Sanu returns. Similarly, will the Niners retain both of their depth linebackers behind Greenlaw and Al-Shaair, Marcell Harris and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles?

Those two players in particular are certainly on the midseason roster bubble.

Still, San Francisco has to be feeling good a number of its depth players are contributing nicely, even if those efforts are creating a bit of dilemma with the overall depth chart.

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