Kwon Alexander

How Dre Greenlaw aims to carve lasting starting role on 49ers' defense

How Dre Greenlaw aims to carve lasting starting role on 49ers' defense

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.

[RELATED49ers' Greenlaw thinks Javon Kinlaw could follow Nick Bosa as top rookie]

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.”

What Fred Warner learned from 49ers' tough Super Bowl loss vs. Chiefs

What Fred Warner learned from 49ers' tough Super Bowl loss vs. Chiefs

The 49ers marched easily through the NFC playoffs last season, but their playoff run ultimately ended in Super Bowl heartbreak.

It wasn’t easy to overcome, especially after the Kansas City Chiefs erased a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to swipe the Lombardi Trophy from the 49ers’ embrace.

The outcome left some 49ers in tears, all of them reeling over an opportunity lost. Time lessened the immediate blow, and that 31-20 loss at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens eventually became a teaching tape.

That was the case for middle linebacker and defensive signal caller Fred Warner, who has examined it for ways to reverse an unwelcome outcome.

“It was hard to watch at first because of the raw emotions, but I have watched it a lot since playing in the game,” Warner said on Friday in a video conference with local reporters. “There’s a lot we could’ve done differently to the outcome. It was obviously a great effort by the Chiefs to win that game, but I put a lot of the onus on the defense. Being able to get a stop in the fourth quarter when they were coming back, that’s how we win the game.”

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That proved a struggle. The 49ers allowed 21 unanswered points in the Super Bowl’s fourth quarter while Kyle Shanahan's offense sputtered down the stretch.

Warner intercepted Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter and the 49ers offense turned that into a touchdown. Tarvarious Moore picked the Chiefs quarterback again on the next Kansas City drive, but it was all KC after that.

While Warner had a decent Super Bowl, he has dissected his performance in that game and several others to create offseason goals heading into the 2020 season.

"For myself, there were a couple of plays I could’ve made in that game to help us a little more,” Warner said. “A big thing I’m working on this season is taking better angles to the football. I left a lot of plays out on the field, in terms of tackling, last season. I’m working on that and capitalizing on plays that I missed last season.”

[RELATED: Kelce predicts 49ers-Chiefs rematch]

The linebacker corps was operating well near season’s end and made strides despite Kwon Alexander missing significant time with a pectoral injury. Warner expects the position group to make a major jump next season thanks to the continuity that wasn’t available the group was fortified last offseason with Alexander and fifth-round NFL draft pick Dre Greenlaw.

“We will be able to communicate a lot more effectively,” Warner said. “This time last year, it was a completely new group. Kwon was coming in from the Bucs and Dre was a rookie. Us having a year working together is going to be huge for us. Everything is going to move along a lot smoother, we’ll be a lot faster and we’ll make more plays at the end of the day.”

DeForest Buckner trade showed 49ers could deal anyone at right price

DeForest Buckner trade showed 49ers could deal anyone at right price

The 49ers proved their point at the start of the new league year: Everybody is worth a price.

The 49ers dealt their team MVP, DeForest Buckner, to the Indianapolis Colts. The 49ers made the move to re-sign Arik Armstead at $4 million less per season than Buckner and gained the No. 13 overall pick in the NFL draft from the Colts.

Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, now a writer at The Athletic, reported Monday after “talking to teams around the league,” that the 49ers have made it known edge rusher Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander, safety Jaquiski Tartt and receiver Marquise Goodwin are available in trades. Each player can be had, Lombardi reports, “for the right price.”

There are very few players on the 49ers that are untouchable. Feel free to add the names of backup quarterbacks, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard, as well as running backs Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida, and receiver Dante Pettis, to the list of players the 49ers would be willing to trade at the right price.

Ford is an interesting case because he is scheduled to earn $13.65 million this season. It became fully guaranteed on April 1, so another team would have to be willing to pick up that deal. The 49ers are not going to release him.

Also, Ford is a big part of this team’s plan because they do not have another dynamic pass rusher to take that spot. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said late last season that Ford “unlocks” the 49ers’ pass rush.

They were a good defense without him. But, if healthy, his explosiveness coming off the edge opposite of Nick Bosa gives the 49ers’ defense something it could not get from any other player on the roster.

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The 49ers restructured Alexander’s contract in November, so there’s not a lot of advantage to be gained on the salary cap by trading him. Alexander is scheduled to make base salaries of more than $12.5 million in 2021 and ’22, so perhaps they just want to get something in return before cutting him free after this season.

After all, the 49ers seem to have their long-term replacement already on the roster. Dre Greenlaw stepped in and played well as a rookie after Alexander missed the second half of the season with a torn pectoral.

Tartt is scheduled to make $4.3 million on the final year of his contract. The 49ers signed Jimmie Ward to an extension. They would have to find another starting safety among Marcell Harris, Tarvarius Moore and a possible draft pick.

Goodwin is set to make $4.5 million this season. It is hard to believe the 49ers will take any chances with the oft-injured Goodwin. If they can find any trade partner, they will do it. Otherwise, he is likely to be released before the 49ers are given the OK from the league to take the field in preparation for the 2020 season.

[RELATED: Report: 49ers' Ford, Alexander, others available for trade]

There is little question the 49ers will want to make some moves during the draft. After their two picks in the first round, the 49ers are not scheduled to select again until the fifth round.

This draft is expected to have quality depth at a few different positions of need for the 49ers, so they will look to add more selections at the right price.