Injured Dre Greenlaw faces precarious, uncertain future with 49ers

The Niners may be forced into a tough decision regarding Dre Greenlaw in the not-so-distant future.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw (57)
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw (57) / Ryan Kang/GettyImages

A serious injury and an expiring contract stand in the way of Dre Greenlaw remaining a vital part of the 49ers defense beyond 2024.

One could make the argument that a big reason the San Francisco 49ers lost Super Bowl LVIII in overtime to the Kansas City Chiefs is due to the in-game loss of linebacker Dre Greenlaw to a non-contact torn Achilles.

Greenlaw, who sealed the Niners' win over the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs just weeks earlier by intercepting quarterback Jordan Love, had contained KC tight end Travis Kelce for much of the Super Bowl prior to the devastating injury.

Once Greenlaw was lost, Kelce was able to dominate San Francisco's backup linebacker, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, which proved to be a turning point.

That momentum shift illustrated Greenlaw's importance to the 49ers defense. And it's an outcome Greenlaw still laments amid his recovery.

Now, with the 2024 season looming, the former fifth-round NFL Draft pick out of Arkansas faces the most uncertain time of his career since his rookie season.

X-factors are stacking up against Dre Greenlaw's time with 49ers

The linebacker's Achilles injury looms large. While he openly expressed positive developments in his recovery from offseason surgery, the expectation is for Greenlaw not to be available for the start of the regular season.

Instead, the Niners will turn to one of their offseason free-agent pickups, De'Vondre Campbell, to pair with All-Pro Fred Warner.

Campbell likely understands his role, knowing he'll be bumped down the depth chart once Greenlaw is back at 100 percent. Yet the lingering effects of the Achilles tear could ultimately translate into a down season, which isn't uncommon for players who are forced to miss a full offseason because of such a setback.

Complicating the matter, San Francisco also has three first- and second-year pro backers who may be tasked with stepping up into the void: Dee Winters, Jalen Graham and the 2024 rookie, Tatum Bethune.

On top of that, Greenlaw is entering a contract year and will be a free agent in 2025.

Knowing the 49ers are already projected to be more than $37 million over the salary cap next year and still have to dish out lucrative extensions to players like quarterback Brock Purdy, it's reasonable to assume Greenlaw becomes a luxury the Niners simply can't afford.

Could Dre Greenlaw injury ultimately work in 49ers' favor?

No team wants to see one of its players injured, especially someone as vital as Greenlaw.

But, there is a hidden bonus, potentially.

If he misses substantial time this season, and/or he's notably hampered in 2024 by having missed all offseason workouts and training camp, Greenlaw's market value will ultimately diminish. It's the unfortunate reality many players face when hitting a contract year after suffering a serious injury.

At 27 years old, it's not as if Greenlaw is past his prime. Over the last two years, he's been among the team's leaders in tackles and remains one of the better coverage linebackers in the league, maintaining the one-two punch with Warner that has translated into the best duo in the NFL for the previous two seasons.

San Francisco would have to weigh the risks versus the potential rewards, of course. It wouldn't want to dish out big money to a player who could possibly be riddled with further injury setbacks, but it would happily re-sign or extend Greenlaw for good value if there was a solid chance he returns to form.

The data is incomplete, though, which leaves Greenlaw's future in doubt.

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