Year after year we see draft gems from Day 3 flourish in their rookie season. There are examples from both sides of the ball where teams get a steal of a pick in a player that was selected late on draft weekend. For the 2019 draft class, one of those players was 49ers' fifth-round linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
While at Arkansas, Greenlaw recorded 321 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and four sacks with three interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in his career. He was also a team captain as a senior.
Greenlaw was picked No. 148 on the final day of the draft. San Francisco general manager John Lynch expressed how excited he was to get Greenlaw that late.
"We had him a lot higher on our board, so we're surprised, frankly, that he dropped this far," Lynch said at the time. "[We] felt like there was tremendous value in the pick. He's a guy that was at the Senior Bowl on the other squad, so we got to be around him by virtue of that. Being at the practices, watching him, we felt he was a really good fit for what we do."
There were many scouting staffs intrigued by Greenlaw, but after running a disappointing 4.73-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, dropping to the fifth round likely meant many teams had cooled on him. Lynch wasn't one of them.
"The 40 that he clocked was slower than what he plays," Lynch said then. "He ran a 4.73, but the reports out of Arkansas is that on the Catapult, the GPS stuff, he's the fastest player on their team, and that shows up on film."
Not only did that speed show up on his Arkansas film, but it also showed up in his 49ers film too. It was a big reason why Greenlaw landed on Pro Football Focus' All-Rookie team for 2019.
"This second spot came down to Devin Bush and Greenlaw, but Greenlaw edged him out in both overall grade and coverage grade to earn the All-Rookie nod. Greenlaw’s success in coverage wasn’t limited to his big tackle on the goal line that clinched the NFC West. He was one of the best linebackers in the league at limiting receiving production. Among linebackers who were targeted 50 or more times this year, only Darius Leonard, Jayon Brown and Eric Kendricks allowed a lower passer rating than Greenlaw’s mark of 83.6."
But that high grade didn't happen right away.
The 49ers’ main two linebackers to enter the season were Fred Warner (MIKE) and Kwon Alexander (WILL). It meant Greenlaw (SAM) was the third man in the rotation, which didn’t afford nearly as much playing time, seeing action mostly just when the team went to its base defense. For reference, in the first seven weeks of the season, Greenlaw did not play more than 50% of the defensive snaps in a single game; he also only played more than 40% in two games.
When Alexander went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, Greenlaw got the green light, and he may never look back. From Week 8 on, Greenlaw played over 90% of the defensive snaps in every single game for the rest of the regular season. In the end, Greenlaw finished the season with 92 total tackles, which was second on the team and only 26 tackles less than team leader Warner.
The biggest area of encouragement from Greenlaw was how his speed showed up in coverage. Alexander is a high-energy player, the low spot in his game often comes from when he's asked to play in coverage. In a defense that typically plays just two linebackers for most of its downs, having one liability in coverage at that level can be exploited. Greenlaw showed a higher ceiling for playing in coverage both from a controlled and comfort standpoint.
Moving forward, Alexander will still have a spot on the team. But if Greenlaw has the higher ceiling, it would make sense to make him the No. 2 linebacker and move Alexander to No. 3, even if Alexander has an expensive contract to eat.
- May 17, 2022
- May 17, 2022