At first glance, Azeez Al-Shaair was already looking like a potential fit for the Houston Texans. After all, his San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator of the past two seasons DeMeco Ryans is running the show now as head coach and Al-Shaair’s near $4 million deal is expiring — setting him up to become available via free agency effective March 15.
But now, one coaching move the Texans made on Wednesday, February 15 could be enough to sway Al-Shaair into making Houston as the No. 1 landing spot, as a coach representing the outside linebacker’s last football destination is now on board.
Aaron Wilson of NBC 2 Houston first reported on Tuesday, February 14 that Chris Kiffin was leaving the Cleveland Browns to coach the Texan linebackers under Ryans. Not only did his older brother and Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin confirm the move on Wednesday, but 49ers insider for The Athletic Matt Barrows believes that the arrival of Chris Kiffin only increases the chances for Houston to nab Al-Shaair given his collegiate connection.
“Chris Kiffin to coach LBs with Texans. That might put Houston at the top of possible Azeez Al-Shaair landing spots considering Al-Shaair’s and Kiffin’s backgrounds at FAU [Florida Atlantic University],” Barrows said.
Did Al-Shaair Play for the Chris Kiffin?
Chris Kiffin was defensive coordinator in 2017 for the Owls under his brother. He also served as the linebackers coach.
And guess who was one of his defenders that season in Boca Raton? Al-Shaair himself.
That was also during Al-Shaair’s best collegiate season. The long 6-foot-2, 225-pounder delivered 147 total tackles, 72 solo stops, 11 tackles for a loss, four pass deflections, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
One of his breakout games came against traditional Big 10 Conference heavyweight Wisconsin, which was a 10-tackle day which additionally featured eight solo stops and a tackle behind the line of scrimmage that swallowed three yards. And that was a Badgers team that featured future NFL Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Taylor, who ended up with 223 yards and scored three touchdowns in the 31-14 win.
That game was one of 10 contests that witnessed Al-Shaair hit double-digit tackles. He also delivered five games of hitting 14, including hitting that number in consecutive games twice that season. That Owls team under the Kiffin brothers went on to finish 11-3 overall.
Al-Shaair’s numbers dwindled the following year after being limited to six games due to a torn ACL. But before emerging as a starter for the 49ers defense, he thrived under the newly hired linebackers coach for the Texans and earned First Team All-Conference USA honors as CUSA’s leader in tackles.
Rival Could be Another Possibility
If Houston does pursue Al-Shaair, there could be competition within their division…with a team that also has past 49ers representation.
Except this franchise has an Ex-49er in the front office: The Tennessee Titans, with Ran Carthon now the general manager.
There’s already Titan fans who hope Carthon can work his magic and bring in Al-Shaair. Adding the fast and twitchy ‘backer will help a defense that was 23rd in yards allowed but surrendered the most passing yards in the league.
Al-Shaair has improved his pass coverage grade the last two seasons per Pro Football Focus, going from 60.8 in 2021 to elevating it to 61 this past season. His improving coverage ability and past relationship with Carthon could get Tennessee to prevent a reunion with Ryans and Kiffin. But again, the latter coach heading over to Houston may be what catapults the Texans as the top free agency destination for the 25-year-old ‘backer.