The 49ers’ pass rush is the tip of their defensive spear, but their linebacking corps is also exceptionally important, and San Francisco is still in search of a third starter.
Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw both play on passing downs and do an excellent job of controlling the middle of the field – a key to success for modern defenses against quicker, shorter passing attacks. Beyond that the depth chart has a slew of question marks and unproven young players.
Here’s what the 49ers’ depth chart looks like at linebacker going into training camp:
(AP Photo/Corey Sipkin)
Warner was on a fast track to stardom when he earned the starting Mike linebacker job during training camp his rookie season. He’s only gotten better since then and earned a First-Team All-Pro nod last season. He’s perhaps the NFL’s best linebacker, and he’s in line for a sizable extension while anchoring a very good second level for San Francisco’s defense.
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Greenlaw, a fifth-round pick in 2019, worked his way into a starting role as a rookie and saw an uptick in workload when he took over as the Will linebacker for Kwon Alexander last season. He has good range in coverage and should carve out a starting role in the NFL for a long time. He may not make a Pro Bowl, but he and Warner form one of the league’s most dynamic linebacking duos.
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Al-Shaair may have a roster spot all but nailed down, but his starting job as the Sam linebacker isn’t a certainty. He started five games last season and played roughly 29 percent of the defensive snaps. Al-Shaair notched his first-career interception and two pass breakups last season while racking up 35 tackles. He may be a starting-caliber player, but he’ll need to prove it with a strong camp.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Flannigan-Fowles is one of the most interesting players to watch for the 49ers this offseason. The former safety made his pro debut last year after joining the club as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona in 2019. He started the final game of the year against the Seahawks and tallied a couple tackles, but his safety background makes him an intriguing option in the second level for San Francisco. He might be bound for special teams work, but there’s a real chance he earns the starting job next to Warner and Greenlaw.
James Burgess Jr.
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The 49ers love to have an extra linebacker with a lot of special teams experience on the roster. Burgess has been in the NFL for four years and saw some action as a starter, but his contributions as a pro have mostly come on special teams. He could compete for a starting job, but the more likely outcome for him is a spot on the back end of the roster where he plays on kickoff and punt coverage.
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Griffith made his way to the 49ers last year as an undrafted rookie from Indiana State. He was cut from the final roster, but came back to the club on their practice squad later in the season. He’s a practice squad candidate again this year. It appears his only shot at a roster spot would come if the 49ers keep six LBs.
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Hilliard spent six years at Ohio State before signing with San Francisco as an undrafted free agent this year. He posted 53 tackles, nine tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions in 36 college games. He’s in a similar spot to Griffith in that a good camp likely earns him a practice squad spot.
Sullivan’s situation is almost identical to Hilliard’s. He was a six-year player at Kansas State. He played in 39 games and was more productive than Hilliard with 108 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and two interceptions. His path to an eventual roster spot would likely begin with a practice squad job this year.