Mark Nzeocha

49ers Mailbag: Which linebackers can step up, replace Kwon Alexander?


49ers Mailbag: Which linebackers can step up, replace Kwon Alexander?

The 49ers are on their mini-bye weekend, following a 28-25 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night.

San Francisco (8-0) returns to action in Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium in a key NFC West matchup.

The victory in Glendale, Arizona, came at a cost, though. Spark-plug defender Kwon Alexander was lost for the season due to a torn pectoral.

Questions about the team’s linebacker position lead off this edition of 49ers Mailbag.

The 49ers will add a linebacker to their 53-man to fill the spot vacated when Alexander goes on injured reserve. That player appeared in 30 games the past two seasons and started five games at the end of the 2018 season.

He is 23-year-old Elijah Lee, who registered 10 or more tackles in four of his five starts last season. Lee spent the first eight games on the 49ers’ practice squad, and I’m mildly surprised another team did not sign him in the first half of the season.

Lee knows the defensive system. He will take a spot on the depth chart behind Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair and Mark Nzeocha while also serving a role as one of the team’s core special-teams contributor.

Rehabilitation from surgery to repair a torn pectoral typically is a six-month process. The goal for Alexander will be to get him ready for the start of training camp in 2020.

That said, no decision has to be made when a player goes on injured reserve until further down the road. Teams are allowed to bring back only two players per season off IR. Those players must remain on IR for a minimum of eight weeks.

Dre Greenlaw is the choice to replace Alexander in the starting lineup at weakside linebacker. The 49ers’ linebacker positions are more interchangeable than they’ve been in the past, and Greenlaw was the starter at strongside linebacker in the team’s base defense. That position is the first to exit the field when the 49ers go to their nickel defense.

Greenlaw is more similar to Alexander with his ability to run and hit. Alexander will be difficult to replace due to his play-making ability, knowledge of the game, professionalism and attitude. Greenlaw has the physical skills, so his biggest challenges will be from the shoulders up.

The bigger choice will be which player -- Mark Nzeocha or Azeez Al-Shaair -- will take over on the strong side on base downs. The 49ers have a high opinion of Al-Shaair and envision him as a potential starter in the coming seasons.

I do not want this to sound smart-alecky or insensitive, but with Josh Gordon's history, it is probably not wise to make any definitive statement about his future availability or projected contributions.

But, yes, the Seattle Seahawks’ plan is to assimilate him into the offense and get him ready to play against the 49ers on Monday, Nov. 11.

The Seahawks were the only team to claim Gordon off waivers on Friday after the New England Patriots parted ways with him after just six games, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported.

My opinion is the 49ers were not interested because Kyle Shanahan knows as well as anyone that he is not someone to be relied upon. They decided they did not want to release Marquise Goodwin to bring him aboard.

The 49ers have five receivers active on game days. Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Richie James (due to his contributions in the return game) are no-brainers. Kendrick Bourne has turned into a reliable target, so he’s pretty much a lock, too.

That leaves the decision for that fifth spot coming down to Dante Pettis or Marquise Goodwin. The 49ers believe Dante Pettis is improving and has a lot to offer due to his versatility. At this stage, unless there’s an injury, I don’t see how Goodwin gets back on the field with the 49ers.

The most likely players to be available to return to action for Week 10 against Seattle are left tackle Joe Staley and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Staley went through limited practice work in the past two weeks, and here’s some video from Thursday night of Juszczyk going through a workout ...

The 49ers also have a chance of getting Mike McGlinchey and Ahkello Witherspoon back in the lineup. There is probably less of a rush to get McGlinchey and Witherspoon back, though, because Daniel Brunskill and Emmanuel Moseley are playing so well.

Staley has been going through some intense workouts for a while. The fibula (the non-weight-bearing bone in his lower leg) is completely healed. But it will take some time to get all of his strength back and get up to playing speed.

I would not expect any long-term issues, though. In fact, I’d expect him -- as well as all of the guys returning off injuries -- to get better and better through November and into December and January.

That is a good question. How good? It’s a question I recently posed to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

Here was Saleh’s response:

"We haven't crossed that one. yet. Ahkello had been playing so, so well. You know, it's a messed-up question, but you never have a philosophy that an injury will put you on the bench. Ahkello, he's been working to get healthy, and when he's ready to go, he's going to be ready to go."

[RELATED: Stephen A needs to put some respect on Jimmy G's name]

Three words.

Best. Player. Available.

As I see this roster right now, there is no position need for the future that is so urgent that the 49ers have to reach for a lesser player just because he plays the position where immediate help is needed.

And, because of the health of the roster, the 49ers might be inclined to trade out of the first round for multiple draft picks. As it stands right now, San Francisco only has six picks in the 2020 draft. 

49ers takeaways: What we learned in 31-17 season-opening win over Bucs

49ers takeaways: What we learned in 31-17 season-opening win over Bucs


TAMPA, Fla. -- The 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two evenly matched teams, locked up in a defense-dominated, turnover-filled, penalty-infested season opener Sunday.

And the 49ers, who went winless on the road in 2018, got off to a good start with a 31-17 win over the Bucs, who were making their regular-season debut under new coach Bruce Arians.

It certainly wasn't a masterpiece, as the 49ers had three touchdowns called back because of penalties. Tampa Bay was turned away twice on touchdowns because of penalties on the offense.

Here are three takeaways from the 49ers' win at Raymond James Stadium:

Day for the defense

The 49ers invested heavily in their pass rush, anticipating that improved pressure on the quarterback would lead to more takeaways. That’s exactly what happened Sunday, as the defense generated four turnovers against Jameis Winston and the Bucs.

This is a defense that was the worst in NFL history last season at taking away the ball. The 49ers collected seven takeaways and just two interceptions in 16 games. After the first game of the season, the 49ers already have passed last year’s interception total.

Richard Sherman, who was shut out on interceptions for the first time in his eight-year career last season, picked off a Winston pass in the third quarter and returned it 31 yards for his third career touchdown. That gave the 49ers a 20-7 lead with 11:53 remaining in the third quarter.

Ahkello Witherspoon matched Sherman's pick-six, intercepting a Winston pass just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter and returning it 25 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reach.

Linebacker Mark Nzeocha recorded the 49ers’ first interception of the day.

The 49ers’ defense also made a big play when Fred Warner forced Tampa Bay tight end O.J. Howard to fumble, which Ronald Blair recovered at the San Francisco 8-yard line in the second quarter.    

Jimmy has ups and downs

Jimmy Garoppolo, returning from an ACL injury that cut his 2018 season short after just three games, had the expected good and bad in the 49ers’ season opener. The quarterback finished the day having completed 18 of 27 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown with one interception.

Garoppolo was responsible for the first touchdown of the game -- in a bad way. But he came back in the second half with a perfectly thrown 39-yard touchdown pass to Richie James, who beat Bucs defensive back M.J. Stewart on the play. The play gave the 49ers a 13-7 lead.

With both teams struggling to get anything going offensively, Garoppolo delivered points to the Bucs when he stared down running back Tevin Coleman along the left sideline in the second quarter. Tampa Bay cornerback Vernon Hargreaves jumped the route to intercept the pass, and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.

Garoppolo also threw a pick-six in the 49ers’ season opener a year ago. His interception provided a big play in the Minnesota Vikings’ win over the 49ers last season, when Mike Hughes returned the pick 45 yards for a touchdown in a 24-16 victory.

Garoppolo had two first-half TD passes to tight end George Kittle nullified by penalties.

Kwon’s big day ends early

Kwon Alexander was fired up for his return to action after his final season with the Bucs ended with a torn ACL. But the linebacker didn't even make it through the first half before being disqualified from the game.

Alexander was penalized for a personal foul when he hit Winston as the Bucs QB was sliding at the end of a 5-yard run. Upon consultation with the official replay center in New York, referee Alex Kemp announced that Alexander was ejected for targeting.

Alexander had three tackles during his short stint, including a huge hit at the end of a 3-yard run by Ronald Jones. Alexander also had an easy interception slip through his hands.

In Alexander’s absence, starting SAM linebacker Dre Greenlaw, a rookie, moved to the WILL position, and Nzeocha took over at Greenlaw’s spot.

Watch Richard Sherman return interception for 49ers touchdown vs. Bucs


Watch Richard Sherman return interception for 49ers touchdown vs. Bucs

After years of making life tough on 49ers quarterbacks, Richard Sherman has the shoe on the other foot nowadays, and he made perhaps his most important play yet in a San Francisco uniform during the third quarter of the 49ers' Week 1 matchup with the Buccaneers.

Shortly after Jimmy Garoppolo completed his first passing touchdown since tearing his ACL in Week 3 of last year, Sherman further increased San Francisco's lead to 20-7 on Sunday with a pick-six of Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston.

Ironically, it was a near-mirror image of a first-half Garoppolo interception, which the Bucs also returned for a touchdown.

The interception marked Sherman's first since coming over to the 49ers from the Seahawks. It also was San Francisco's second interception of the game after Mark Nzeocha tallied one in the first half.

The 49ers set an NFL record for the fewest interceptions in a season with just two last year, so they've already matched that total before the conclusion of their first game.