Matt Maiocco

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.”

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

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.”

D.J. Jones expects Javon Kinlaw, veterans to step up on 49ers' D-line

D.J. Jones expects Javon Kinlaw, veterans to step up on 49ers' D-line

Nose tackle D.J. Jones had to take a moment to collect himself when reminded that two of his teammates along the 49ers’ defensive line from last season are now with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I just shed a tear when you said that,” Jones said on a video call Thursday with Bay Area reporters.

Jones certainly did not minimize the losses of DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day. But he spoke with confidence about the returning players who will be asked to pick up the slack, along with a talented newcomer who is expected to step into a starting role.

“Those are two guys that were leaders in our room,” Jones said. “Sheldon was the smartest guy that I had the pleasure to play with on and off the field. Buck was just an all-around leader, as far as showing by example. He was always on time. Buck was the guy. If you wanted to know how to do something right, watch Buck.”

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

The 49ers sent Buckner to the Colts in a trade this offseason for a first-round draft pick, while Day signed with the Colts as a free agent.

“Just losing those two guys was tough, but we have enough leaders in the room, like Arik (Armstead), even a young (Nick) Bosa, Dee Ford -- guys that can step up and fill that role,” Jones said.

The big acquisition along the 49ers’ front four this offseason was South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, whom the club selected with the No. 14 overall draft pick.

“I’m just excited to play with a South Carolina guy, to be honest,” said Jones, who was born and went to high school in Piedmont, South Carolina.

Jones, who played at Ole Miss, and Kinlaw both went to the junior-college route before earning scholarships in the SEC.

“He’s an animal,” Jones said of Kinlaw. “I think he’ll add versatility to the D-line. I don’t feel like anybody is just one dimensional on our D-line, and he’s adding on to that puzzle. Eventually, it’s all going to show, and we’ll finish next time.”

[RELATED: 49ers' Dre Greenlaw thinks Javon Kinlaw could follow Nick Bosa as top rookie]

Kinlaw is expected to play three-technique and line up next to Jones on base downs. Jones said he is completely recovered from a high-ankle sprain that brought an early end to his season.

He and Kinlaw (6-foot-5, 319 pounds) figure to provide the 49ers with stout pair of interior linemen against the run. Both could factor into the equation as pass-rushers, too.

“Excuse my language, but he’s a grown-a-- man,” Jones said. “He’s bulky. He’s strong as all-get-out, which you can see on film.

“He’s driving linemen to the quarterback, which I love to see, which I know (49ers defensive line coach) Kris Kocurek loves to see. He looks like he has heavy hands. That’s one aspect to our D-line, we all have heavy hands, that he’ll add to the group.”

Raheem Mostert sad, excited by 49ers trading Matt Breida to Dolphins

Raheem Mostert sad, excited by 49ers trading Matt Breida to Dolphins

Raheem Mostert experienced conflicting emotions when he first learned of the draft-day trade that sent his close friend, running back Matt Breida, from the 49ers to the Miami Dolphins.

“It is a little bit sad, but it’s also business,” Mostert told Bay Area reporters on a video call Wednesday. “I told Matt that I was angry. But at the same time, I was happy just because he’s getting an opportunity to go down to Miami and to try to be one of the best backs in Miami that he can possibly be.

“And I know he’s going to take that step because that’s all Matt does.”

Because of their depth at running back, the 49ers opted to deal Breida to the Dolphins for a fifth-round draft pick. The 49ers selected West Virginia offensive lineman Colton McKivitz with the pick general manager John Lynch acquired in exchange for Breida.

Breida has a chance to flourish with his new team. He joins an unimpressive Dolphins backfield that includes running backs Kalen Ballage, Myles Gaskin, Jordan Howard and Patrick Laird. Miami’s leading rusher last season was 37-year-old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick with 243 yards.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Breida, who earned his job with the 49ers after arriving in 2017 as an undrafted rookie from Georgia Southern, was a top performer for the team during his three seasons despite battling a variety of injuries. In 2018, he led the 49ers with 814 yards rushing while averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

He was the 49ers’ leading rusher for most of last season until he missed time late in the season with an ankle injury. Breida was second on the team behind Mostert with 623 yards rushing with a 5.1 average in 13 games. But he fell out of the team’s rotation in the playoffs.

“Being undrafted and fighting his way up the roster, he had the same qualities I had when I was doing the same thing when I was undrafted,” Mostert said. “That’s where we share our bond.

“He said, ‘Hey, Raheem, we’re still going to be contacting each other week-in and week-out.’ And I said, ‘You damn right we are.’ He’s my brother and I’m always going to look after my little brother, no matter what. Our bond is unbreakable. It’s something that’s going to last for a lifetime. I’m so excited for him.”

[RELATED49ers' Raheem Mostert expects Jerick McKinnon to 'surprise everyone']

The 49ers figure they should be in good shape at running back even without Breida. The club hopes Jerick McKinnon remains healthy and gives the 49ers a pass-catching threat out of the backfield on third downs. McKinnon joins Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Jeff Wilson. The 49ers also added undrafted rookies Salvon Ahmed (Washington) and JaMycal Hasty (Baylor).

“We’re still going to be a close-knit group, and it helps because we still have the rookies to crack on, too,” Mostert said. “It’s pretty cool because they’re also chiming in and getting used to how we operate within the room.”