The 49ers’ pass rush gets a ton of the credit for the team’s defensive success, but the real key lies in the way their group of linebackers controls the second level. There may not be a better LB corps in the league going into 2022.
San Francisco’s defensive line plays a Wide-9 style that forces linebackers to step in and fill gaps in the run game, which they do effectively. They also cover very well and can take away the quick, over-the-middle passing attack that teams thrive on in the modern NFL.
There’s not a ton of intrigue from a roster standpoint going into the year. Their starters are established and their depth is pretty strong. One battle to watch though will be between Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair for the starting Will LB job. That spot is on the field for three downs, while the third (Sam LB) is typically off the field in sub packages. Here’s what the LB group looks like going into camp:
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Good luck finding a more prototypical modern LB than Warner. He’s athletic, has a tremendous football IQ, and is as good against the run as he is in coverage. Warner got off to a tough start in 2021 after being named an All-Pro in 2020, but it was evident by the end of the season that he’s still the game’s best off-ball linebacker. As long as he anchors the middle of the 49ers’ defense, they’re going to be hard to move the ball against.
(AP Photo/Lon Horwedel)
Greenlaw, a fifth-round pick in 2019, put together a nice rookie year and was good again in 2020. Last season he was hurt for most of the year, but had his best season in a small sample size. He’s not perfect and sometimes struggles against the run. He also doesn’t offer much as a blitzer. Greenlaw is an effective player alongside Warner though and his improvement in coverage last season should give him a leg up in the race for the Will LB spot.
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Al-Shaair was the next man up when Greenlaw went down with a groin injury in Week 1 last year. He slid from Sam to Will and had some clear ups and downs. There were missed assignments in coverage and tons of whiffed tackles, but when he was on he looked like one of the best LBs in football. It’s all about consistency for Al-Shaair this year. If he can cut down on the missed tackles and be a more effective player in coverage, he has a real shot to surpass Greenlaw on the depth chart.
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Flannigan-Fowles is a converted safety who joined the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He’s quietly worked his way into a regular special teams role, and is the favorite going into camp to be the fourth LB on the depth chart. He saw a career-high 164 defensive snaps last year and acquitted himself well in that limited action. Flannigan-Fowles isn’t liable to overtake Al-Shaair or Greenlaw on the depth chart, but the 49ers should be okay if he’s pushed into extended action this year.
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The 49ers added some depth to their LB corps with Burks, but he may not even be the first player off the bench. His larger impact will come on special teams where he starred for the Packers after they took him in the third round of the 2018 draft. San Francisco’s special teams were abysmal last year and Burks should at least improve that unit for the 49ers. His relatively small defensive sample size hasn’t been great, which doesn’t bode well for his placement on the LB depth chart going into training camp.
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Robinson had a cup of coffee with the 49ers last season after starting the year with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted rookie. In San Francisco he played three games with 37 special teams snaps at the end of the season. He figures to be the frontrunner for one of the final LB jobs, but he’ll win that via special teams contributions.
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Gemmel is an undrafted rookie from North Carolina. During his last three years with the Tar Heels he posted 235 tackles, 20.0 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He’ll be a practice squad candidate if he doesn’t shine on special teams (this will be a pattern moving forward on this list, FYI).
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McCrary-Ball spent a long time at the University of Indiana, where an injury robbed him of his 2017 campaign, and the COVID-19 pandemic knocked out his 2020 season. He returned for the 2021 season and posted 40 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss and 1.0 sacks. His production fell off post-injury and he finished his career with 242 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 52 games. He’s another practice squad candidate unless he can shine on special teams.
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Olubi is the third and final undrafted rookie who could be destined for the practice squad unless he dominates on special teams. He played at three small colleges before landing at San Diego State for his final two college seasons. In 19 games with the Aztecs, the LB/safety hybrid had 68 tackles, four tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles.