49ers’ LBs can cement themselves as NFL’s best in 2022

·4 min read

The 49ers have the best linebacker in football. Most observers would probably acknowledge that there is nobody better at the position than Fred Warner. Yet such is Warner’s brilliance that the overall strength of the Niners at linebacker flies somewhat under the radar.

Injuries to Warner’s running mates are a likely contributor to this. Both Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair have had issues staying healthy during their careers. However, when healthy, they have each performed at a very high level.

The 49ers’ overall strength at the position led Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina to rank San Francisco’s linebackers as the best in the NFL this offseason.

They have competition from the likes of the Indianapolis Colts, the New Orleans Saints, and the Green Bay Packers. Yet if Greenlaw and Al-Shaair can remain healthy for most, if not the entirety of the season, then they and Warner can solidify themselves as the premier linebacking trio in the league.

Middle linebacker Warner’s strengths are well-documented at this point. He is the green-dot wearer on the 49er defense, possessing excellent awareness of his and his teammates’ responsibilities and how the defense should react to pre-snap changes by the offense. 

That awareness extends to zone coverage, with his aptitude in that area helping make the 49ers much more difficult to pick apart when they drop into a zone, as Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers both found out in last season’s playoffs.

With his athleticism allowing him to match up with tight ends, running backs and often even receivers in man coverage, Warner represents the archetypal linebacker in an era of the NFL where the passing game is king. Yet his continued excellence in defending opposing aerial attacks does not come at the expense of his run defense. Warner is a force against the run who last year set a new career-high in overall tackles (137) and matched his career-high from 2019 with seven tackles for loss.

Greenlaw is penciled in as the Niners’ starter at weakside linebacker and will hope for a bounce-back year after being limited to just three regular-season games in a 2021 season in which a groin injury led him to undergo surgery.

He did feature in the Week 18 win over the Rams and the subsequent playoff campaign, displaying the sideline-to-sideline speed and violent hitting that is partially what makes him such a formidable player at the second level of the defense.

Greenlaw is also an underrated defender in pass coverage and his numbers from the small sample size of 15 regular-season targets last year are reflective of his prowess in that regard. Per Pro Football Reference, Greenlaw gave up just 4.2 yards per target while his passer rating allowed when targeted was only 47.4.

Greenlaw will hope to enjoy the same success over a full season in 2022 but may have to rotate with Al-Shaair, who filled in superbly while the former fifth-round pick was on the sideline.

While he gave up a passer rating of 101.3 on his 66 targets, Al-Shaair allowed just 6.2 yards per target, only 10 linebackers targeted at least 50 times surrendered fewer.

Al-Shaair also did an excellent job of producing splash plays. He racked up nine tackles for loss and two sacks, forced one fumble and recovered two, and registered five pass breakups and an interception.

In other words, Al-Shaair did not give up significant yardage when offenses attacked him in pass coverage and excelled at forcing opponents into negative plays.

That is a combination that should see Al-Shaair, who wore the green dot for the one game Warner missed last season, receive a high number of snaps in 2022, whether that’s in rotation with Greenlaw at WLB or as the Niners’ starting strongside linebacker on base downs.

Though nickel has replaced the traditional base defense as the personnel grouping most commonly used in the NFL, the play of the 49ers’ top three linebackers in coverage means their pass coverage may not suffer that much when teams throw against their ‘base’ look.

Warner, Greenlaw and Al-Shaair can all more than hold their own in the aspect of the game most important to the modern-day linebacker and thrive at producing plays to put offenses in negative situations.

No team in the NFL possesses such a well-rounded top three and if they can all stay healthy and deliver their best to help the defense put new starting quarterback Trey Lance in the best positions possible, their status as the best linebacking corps in the league should be firmly cemented.

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Story originally appeared on Niners Wire