Azeez Al-Shaair has been 49ers best unsung hero in 2021

Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images /

Expected to be little more than a rotational player, 49ers linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair has quietly emerged as one of the team’s best players in 2021.

He won’t be considered as one this season. But San Francisco 49ers linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair should be in the running for the Pro Bowl in 2021.

The third-year former underafted free agent, who has quite the remarkable story about his journey to the NFL, wasn’t supposed to be such a prominent player this season. The Niners already had two starting-caliber linebackers on the roster, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, and they added two more undrafted free agents last offseason, Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hilliard, potentially putting Al-Shaair’s roster spot in jeopardy.

Now, 14 weeks into the regular season, there are no questions about Al-Shaair losing that spot. None.

Azeez Al-Shaair has done more for 49ers than just a starting-caliber backup

Originally pegged as San Francisco’s starting strong-side (SAM) linebacker entering 2021, one who’ll come off the field during the frequent nickel sub packages, Al-Shaair found himself thrust into a starting role in nearly every facet when Greenlaw suffered a serious groin injury way back in Week 1.

Since that point, Al-Shaair has done nothing but impress.

Over 12 starts this year, Al-Shaair has managed 96 total tackles, trailing only Warner (99) for the team lead, 1.5 sacks, five passes broken up, an interception, a force fumble, two fumble recoveries and a whopping nine tackles for a loss.

The last category trails only EDGE Nick Bosa (18) on the defense.

While he’s been something of a liability in tackling, having missed 12 this season already, he’s more than made up for it by being a quality all-around player. Considering his Pro Football Focus overall grade is a respectable 64.9, not bad for someone expected to be a rotational player, Al-Shaair is quietly cementing himself as a must-have member of the defense.

49ers face a tough decision with Azeez Al-Shaair in 2022

Ideally, the 49ers would like to keep both Greenlaw and Al-Shaair long term, helping create a trio of starting linebackers to group with Warner for years to come.

But that’s not always a luxury teams can afford, particularly in the Niners’ case with what promises to be a massive extension necessary for Bosa.

Al-Shaair is a restricted free agent next year, which gives San Francisco some control and a few options. A first-round tender, which Over the Cap estimates to be worth $5.479 million, would either cost that much or net the 49ers a first-round NFL Draft pick in exchange, should another team pluck him away.

Not likely.

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A second-round tender, projected at $3.927 million, seems much more plausible. Even then, teams probably wouldn’t want to part ways with a second-round pick to acquire him.

It’s also possible the Niners simply offer up a new contract instead of going the RFA route, not unlike what they did with cornerback Emmanuel Moseley by signing him to a two-year deal before he hit restricted free agency.

This could, however, come at something of an expense to Greenlaw, who only briefly made a return to the field back in Week 12 before reaggravating his groin injury. San Francisco might retain Greenlaw on the cheap for one more season, but right now, the preference appears to be for keeping Al-Shaair around in the long run.

Few probably saw that coming.

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