49ers linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair was an unsung hero in 2021, and it’s fair to wonder whether or not the former UDFA can replicate those efforts again in 2022.
If you were one of those who worried significantly whether or not the San Francisco 49ers defense would suffer a significant regression after losing starting linebacker Dre Greenlaw to a serious groin injury in Week 1 of the 2021 season, you’re not alone.
That’s the funny thing about injuries, though. One player’s setback can be another player’s breakout opportunity.
Granted, three-year pro linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair didn’t put himself into the ranks of the NFL’s top backers or anything along those lines. But he certainly made a name for himself, wrapping up his 2021 regular-season campaign with 13 games started, an interception, five passes broken up, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a whopping 102 tackles, the last stat second most on the team behind All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.
Not surprisingly, those were all career-highs for the former undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic:
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
This led to a modest suggestion the Niners could feasibly trade Greenlaw, opening up the door for Al-Shaair to be a full-time starter, and it’s possible San Francisco wouldn’t miss a beat.
Greenlaw remains on the roster, though, yet the 49ers wisely retained Al-Shaair as a restricted free agent, meaning he’ll cost the Niners a shade under $4 million this season, according to Spotrac.com.
That might be worth it, as Niner Noise’s annual profiling of each player on the 90-man roster dives deeper.
Why Azeez Al-Shaair improves with 49ers in 2022
Al-Shaair had a rough go at it his rookie season, starting four games amid injuries to the 49ers’ other linebackers during that otherwise memorable 2019 campaign.
In 2020, Al-Shaair showed some modest improvement, still being something of a liability in coverage but nevertheless showing better prowess against the run.
But it’s 2021 in which the linebacker can hang his laurels, and his progressive Pro Football Focus overall grades from each season reflect that:
- 2019: 42.2
- 2020: 61.0
- 2021: 64.8
While he’s far from a perfect linebacker, the fact there was an argument he could theoretically replace Greenlaw long term is a good endorsement, and that might end up being the plan with Greenlaw hitting the final year of his rookie contract in 2022.
A near-full season of being a starter should help Al-Shaair’s growth in a number of ways.
Why Azeez Al-Shaair regresses with 49ers in 2022
There are nevertheless some things working against Al-Shaair entering this upcoming season.
Sure, the Niners didn’t exactly completely overhaul the linebacking corps this offseason, although adding former Green Bay Packers special teams ace Oren Burks as a possible backup is on the table.
The bigger challenge, though, is the fact Greenlaw is still on the roster. While it’s certainly possible Al-Shaair beats Greenlaw for the primary No. 2 linebacker job, which stays on the field in the prevalent nickel formations, the trend on the depth chart the last two seasons has been for Al-Shaair to serve as the tertiary linebacker, a depth spot he held when Greenlaw was back healthy and on the field more during San Francisco’s postseason run.
That could be an indicator of just how the 49ers view Al-Shaair, a high-caliber backup but someone who won’t overtake a player like Greenlaw if all other things are equal.
And if Greenlaw stays healthy this season, Al-Shaair certainly won’t get anywhere close to the amount of field time.
What to expect out of Azeez Al-Shaair in 2022
The fact the Niners didn’t move Greenlaw this offseason indicates they’re perfectly poised to keep Al-Shaair in more of a backup role, although training camp and preseason games will surely influence that early decision.
However, based on how the depth chart panned out in the playoffs last season, all signs are pointing towards Al-Shaair reverting back into a No. 3 spot on the depth chart.
It’s not a bad place to be in, though, as San Francisco can still feel comfortable rotating its trio of Warner, Greenlaw and Al-Shaair while deploying all three on base downs.
2022 will mark the perfect year-long tryout for Al-Shaair, too, helping the 49ers determine whether or not the contract-year Greenlaw is a must re-sign candidate entering 2023.
Or if the Niners can afford to get cheaper by retaining Al-Shaair instead.