Linebacker Dre Greenlaw made the defensive play of the 49ers’ season last year and will be back as a starter in 2020.
The only question: Where?
And that is a big one because the answer could determine whether Greenlaw is on the field for every defensive play of whether he plays approximately one-third of the snaps in any given game.
Fred Warner is entrenched as the 49ers’ starting middle linebacker. Warner relays the calls from defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. He plays every snap.
The weak-side linebacker (WILL) rarely comes off the field, either. But the strong-side linebacker (SAM) plays only on base downs. When the opposing offense features three wide receivers, the SAM exits the field and nickel back K’Waun Williams enters.
Therefore, the decision whether Greenlaw or Kwon Alexander starts at WILL is a big deal.
“I haven’t been told anything,” Greenlaw said this week on a video call with Bay Area reporters. “We’re both going to be ready, and I know the coaches they’re going to make the right decisions. So I’m just ready to play wherever the coaches put me at. I know I got to be ready to play both positions.”
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Greenlaw played SAM, while Alexander opened the season as the starting WILL. Alexander was ejected from the season opener due to a targeting call, and he sustained a torn pectoral in the 49ers’ eighth game of the season. In the six full games he played, Alexander averaged 50 defensive plays per game, while Greenlaw averaged 15 snaps a game.
Greenlaw took over at WILL for the final eight regular-season games and he played more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps in every game, averaging 69 plays a game.
Alexander was cleared to play in the postseason, and he averaged 22 snaps after moving to SAM. Greenlaw remained at WILL and averaged 53 plays. In the Super Bowl, Greenlaw was on the field for 73 defensive plays, compared to Alexander’s 21.
“The process for each of the positions is very similar,” Greenlaw said. “Being a WILL and SAM, strong side and weak side, you kind of do some of the same things -- just opposite techniques on certain plays.
“So, basically, in order to learn the defense, you have to know both positions. Both positions are similar to each other.”
Greenlaw played a lot as a rookie after coming to the 49ers as a fifth-round draft pick from Arkansas. And he played exceedingly well.
He ranked second on the 49ers in tackles behind Warner with 78 tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Warner missed 22 tackles while registering 104. Greenlaw missed just four tackles. Alexander had 23 tackles but missed 13 tackles, according to PFF.
Greenlaw also made the biggest defensive play of the season when he stopped Seattle Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister just inches short of the goal line on a fourth-down pass play to preserve the 49ers’ Week 17 victory. The win clinched the NFC West and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Greenlaw said he has spent the offseason trying to become even more fluent in the team’s defensive scheme. After getting so much playing time at WILL last season, he feels good about his knowledge of that position. He said he is still trying to get comfortable with his understanding of the SAM spot.
“I’m just trying to understand the scheme as much as possible,” he said. “Now that I have a year under my belt, I have a good feel for the speed of the game. Just the defense in general and understanding my job and my technique and trying to be 100-percent correct on all my assignments.”