49ers ‘keep or dump’ decisions on defensive starters for 2022

Josh Norman #26, Fred Warner #54 and Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Josh Norman #26, Fred Warner #54 and Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /
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Azeez Al-Shaair, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (51) Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

49ers Linebackers

Unlike previous seasons, noticeably when the 49ers were getting healthy production from their starters like Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, the linebacker corps has been dealt with some serious injury attrition.

Warner is out briefly, while Greenlaw has missed almost the entire year. Luckily, depth linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair has filled the void admirably, yet that paints a bit of a tough decision here, too.

Fred Warner: Keep

Just like Nick Bosa, this is about the easiest decision the Niners could make even if he’s dealing with a groin injury.

Some have argued Warner’s play has dipped a bit in 2021 after earning his first first-team All-Pro nod a season ago, suggesting the massive contract extension he received during the offseason was a bit of a mistake.

It’s not, however, and Warner is a vital piece to the defense. Besides, that extension won’t allow him to go away anytime soon even if San Francisco wanted to take that route, which it doesn’t.

Dre Greenlaw: Keep

It’s possible 2021 turns into a lost season for Greenlaw, who endeared himself to fans late in 2019 but still hasn’t totally shown he’s a high-quality linemate to pair with Warner on a full-time basis.

Greenlaw, who suffered a serious groin injury in Week 1, only returned to action briefly in Week 12 before exiting again after reaggravating the injury. It’s not clear how much more time he’ll miss, but with a 2022 cap hit of just $1.045 million, the 49ers are going to retain him even if it’s purely for depth purposes and they decide not to start him anymore.

Azeez Al-Shaair: Keep

Here’s where things get interesting.

Yes, teams technically start three linebackers. But the prevalence of nickel sub packages means only two of them are on the field for the majority of the time, and strong-side (SAM) linebackers frequently come off the field in these situations.

Third-year pro Azeez Al-Shaair, the undrafted free agent who has steadily improved his play since his rookie 2019 campaign, has shined in the absence of Greenlaw this season, second only behind Warner in team tackles with 70, four passes defended and two fumble recoveries.

Some have argued Al-Shaair is better at this point than Greenlaw, and it’s a solid point.

Yet Al-Shaair is a restricted free agent in 2022, so the Niners will have to decide whether or not they want to place a qualifying tender on him, likely a Round 2 one worth approximately $3.9 million.

With Greenlaw’s lowish cap hit in 2022, this is affordable, spending just over $5 million on two starting-caliber linebackers. Keep Al-Shaair.