49ers roster: 4 best things that surprised us most in 2021

Eli Mitchell #25 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Eli Mitchell #25 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /
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Azeez Al-Shaair, 49ers
Azeez Al-Shaair, San Francisco 49ers. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

No. 2: Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair’s maturation has boosted 49ers defense

In 2019, then-undrafted free-agent rookie linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair was viewed as nothing more than an emergency starter and someone who could fill in on special teams. Considering the 49ers already had a trio of starting-caliber linebackers — Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw — not much needed to be expected out of Al-Shaair.

But Alexander was jettisoned in 2020, leaving only Warner and Greenlaw to shoulder the load, forcing Al-Shaair into just five starts that season where he recorded 35 tackles, a forced fumble and two passes broken up.

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In the wake of Greenlaw suffering what’s turning into a season-ending groin injury way back in Week 1, though, Al-Shaair has blossomed.

To date, he ranks second only behind Warner with 102 tackles, also adding an impressive two sacks, nine tackles for a loss and five passes broken up.

This has prompted a safe argument: Al-Shaair should remain in a starter’s role once Greenlaw returns, either this season or next, provided the Niners entertain picking up Al-Shaair’s restricted free-agent tender in 2022.

Based on his play and how he seemingly came out of nowhere, they should.