49ers Signing Viewed as First Attempt to Possibly Replace Key Starter

Dre Greenlaw Azeez Al-Shaair

Getty Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair react to a defensive play on December 15, 2022 in Seattle.

The San Francisco 49ers became active on the signing end a day after the Super Bowl, handing Marcelino McCrary-Ball a one-year deal on the afternoon of Monday, February 13 as announced by the team.

There is, however, this belief behind the signing of the outside linebacker that was noted by The Athletic’s 49ers insider and columnist Matt Barrows.

“He’s in the running to be the team’s No. 3 LB should Azeez Al-Shaair leave in free agency,” Barrows said.

From Barrows’ wording, this sounds like the 49ers are already thinking ahead in potentially moving on from the unrestricted free agent Al-Shaair — who brought speed and takeaways as a key outside linebacker starter during his time in the Bay Area.

McCrary-Ball Following a Near Similar Path to Al-Shaair

In scrutinizing this move, McCrary-Ball is starting to trek down a similar path that Al-Shaair partook in.

Al-Shaair was never drafted and began his career as a post draft free agent signing. The former Florida Atlantic Owl, though, managed to work his way into the active roster and earned his NFL debut in Week 1 of the 2019 season on special teams before eventually becoming a starter two seasons later.

McCrary-Ball, like the unrestricted free agent Al-Shaair, was one who also arrived to the league as an undrafted free agent. He came to the 49ers after a stellar career with the University of Indiana — collecting 241 career tackles, 16.5 behind the line of scrimmage, 5.5 sacks and on the pass defense end, broke up 17 passes and snatched four interceptions.

This is shaping up to being perceived as one past UDFA eventually being groomed to replace another, as Al-Shaair is not expected to be resigned by the 49ers and could be in high demand among the outside linebacker group one month from now once free agency begins.

How McCrary-Ball is Different

The difference with McCrary-Ball compared to Al-Shaair is his past as a defensive back.

At Roswell High School in Georgia, McCrary-Ball built his prep football resume as a star defensive back. He went on to earn All-State Honorable Mention honors and played in the state title game for 2015. He continued to thrive at safety while playing in Bloomington, Indiana by immediately manning the “husky” position for the Hoosiers in their 4-2-5 scheme — lining up as the third safety and serving as a hybrid outside linebacker.

He went on to finish third on the Hoosiers with 75 tackles including 60 solo stops while also snatching two picks and deflecting eight passes. But clearly, his background playing a versatile spot on the Hoosier defense helped play into the 49ers deciding to move the 6-foot, 214-pounder over to OLB while on the practice squad. He’s already shown his ball skills in front of the 49ers Faithful — which was back in August 2022 with the Green Bay Packers in town:

2022 Undrafted Rookie Could Also Replace One Other LB

There’s another attachment to McCrary-Ball’s signing: Another free agent linebacker.

Outside of the starter Al-Shaair, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is a restricted free agent for the upcoming cycle. David Lombardi of The Athletic believes the former Hoosier safety could also be in the running for that spot along with Al-Shaair’s.

“They’d already re-signed all the other youngsters from last season’s practice squad to reserve/future deals, and now Ball gets a bigger contract. He’s a 53-man candidate at an evolving position…as both Azeez Al-Shaair and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles are pending free agents at linebacker,” Lombardi said of the UDFA.

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