49ers: Can Dre Greenlaw beat out Kwon Alexander for starting nickel LB role?

49ers (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
49ers (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Will San Francisco 49ers’ linebacker Dre Greenlaw start at nickel linebacker?

The San Francisco 49ers have perhaps the deepest linebacker corps in the entire NFL, but that incredible depth could lead to some difficult decisions. And in this case, that decision might come at the nickel linebacker position.

The 49ers were fortunate enough to see the rise of star linebacker Fred Warner last season. Warner was able to build off an impressive rookie season to become one of the best linebackers in the NFL by the season’s end.

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Once prized free-agent signing Kwon Alexander went down with a torn pectoral midway through the season, Warner stepped into the veteran’s shoes and more than picked up the slack.

From Week 10 until the end of the season, Warner was one of the best linebackers in football regularly making highlight-reel plays in coverage all the while maintaining his stout run defense.

And going into 2020, there’s no question that Warner will be an every-down player for the 49ers. The same, however, can’t be said for the likes of Alexander and his replacement in the nickel formation last year, Dre Greenlaw.

Greenlaw started the year as the team’s strongside linebacker in their base 4-3 defense, but was left out of their nickel formation with Warner and Alexander in his place. However, once Alexander went down, Greenlaw was asked to step up.

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The fifth-round rookie would shift over to the weakside linebacker position and start alongside Warner in the nickel defense. Greenlaw would impress so much so that he remained in that role even once a still-hobbled Alexander returned in the postseason.

Of course, the 25-year-old was coming off an injury and was hardly 100 percent. Still, Greenlaw had earned his spot on the defense — and it’s going to be incredibly difficult to “demote” him again in 2020.

Who will the 49ers play at nickel linebacker?

However, with Alexander healthy again, is there any way to justify removing him from the nickel package? Prior to his injury, Alexander was playing some of the best football of his career providing stellar coverage and very solid run defense.

Not to mention, how can you rationalize only using Alexander in the base defense given his massive contract? You can’t, really.

Both Greenlaw and Alexander have earned the right to play alongside Warner in the nickel defense, but it’s likely the 49ers give that spot to the more experienced Alexander at least to start the season.

Greenlaw will likely shift back to his normal strongside position while coming off the field on most passing downs. Still, expect the Arkansas product to make his presence felt in the running game and on special teams.

And given Alexander’s injury history, at least the 49ers could take solace in knowing that they have a perfect replacement to fill his role in case he were to miss time again.

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Greenlaw’s time is coming, but don’t expect to see him in a full-time role at the start of the 2020 season.