The San Francisco 49ers finally claim first in one significant area of the football field.
After not claiming the top spot in two of their deepest position groups, running back and defensive line, the 49ers take first in what Pro Football Focus calls maybe “the most volatile position in football.”
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Where the 49ers Come in First
At No. 1 by PFF in their latest ranking unveiled on Tuesday, June 28: The 49ers’ linebacker unit.
That’s right — All-Pro Fred Warner, outside ‘backers Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair and company snatch the top by the national analytics website.
It’s quite the surprise, considering how the 49ers don’t presently have the deepest LB unit in the league. Plus how it’s the inside ‘backer Warner who’s the most decorated member of the group and the lone Pro Bowl LB on the 49ers. Yet, PFF writer Seth Galina explained the criteria for ranking this position group.
“For the purposes of these rankings, we are looking only at true off-ball linebackers, as 3-4 outside linebackers — though designated as linebackers — are in truth edge rushers. Therefore, they are included in our defensive line rankings despite dropping into coverage at times. With that in mind, some of these units have fewer members than others,” Galina wrote.
PFF Explains Warner’s Impact & Rest of LB Group
Galina and PFF then dove into how impactful Warner is on the 49ers.
“It’s hard to overstate Fred Warner‘s effect on the 49ers’ defense in their run to the NFC championship in 2021,” Galina said. “Amid replacement-level cornerback and safety play at times, Warner’s gravitas over the middle of the field allowed the team to play a high percentage of zone coverage to protect its outside cornerbacks. His elite run-stopping ability was on display against the Packers in the divisional round, too.”
Warner is also the emotional leader — proven by the moment he let his emotions spill out after a certain touchdown given up by the ‘Niners during the postseason.
The 49ers didn’t surrender a touchdown after that opening drive. And Warner managed to squeeze then stop plays like this split zone sequence by the Packers:
But the play likely revered by 49er fans from that particular game: This game-changing fumble Warner forced at Lambeau Field:
As for the rest of the unit, Galina and PFF are believers that Greenlaw forms a formidable pairing with Warner.
“After missing most of the regular season, Dre Greenlaw came back for the end of the regular season and playoffs to form the perfect linebacker tandem with Warner,” Galina said.
A Look at the Other 49er ‘Backers
Starting with Greenlaw, he’s aiming to come back from a injury-ravaged season that bottled him to two starts.
And he’s on his comeback tour in a contract year.
The 6-foot, 230-pound fourth-year ‘backer is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2023. Per Spotrac, he’s due to have a base salary $2,540,000. Greenlaw has seen his production drop due to injuries including a calf strain in the NFC title game. When healthy, though, he provides this impact to S.F.:
Meanwhile, Al-Shaair is coming off his best season as a Pro: Setting career-highs in total tackles, solo stops and tackles for a loss…all in 13 starts in 2021. His ability to close fast and finish violently makes him a rare tone-setter for the 49er defense.
Finally, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and newcomer Oren Burks helps provide depth and needed special teams options — Burks especially after coming over from Green Bay.
Again, “the most volatile position” in football has the 49ers on top. Behind them: The Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, Packers and Minnesota Vikings in the top five. The Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams’ LB group joined the 49ers as the NFC West representatives in the top 10.