Azeez Al-Shaair completes 49ers LB group that could be the best in the NFL

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Azeez Al-Shaair has had two surgeries this offseason. A sore elbow repaired by the 49ers linebacker had battled in the January playoff run. The other was a minor knee operation.

Al-Shaair is back to full health. So one of the last things 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans wanted to see in the first practice of training camp was Al-Shaair struggling to get up. But that’s what happened after the linebacker collided with fullback Kyle Juszczyk while covering a short crossover homer.

Al-Shaair’s left elbow brace hit his stomach, triggering momentary pain and dismay from Ryans.

RiseRyans voice crackled in the radio receiver of Al-Shaair’s helmet.

Seconds later, the linebacker obliged his coach. He got up, slowly at first, but returned to training at full speed soon after.

The 49ers breathed a collective sigh of relief. They are counting on Al-Shaair, who signed a restricted free agent tender worth nearly $4 million for the 2022 season, to continue to round out what has become one of the best units. as an NFL linebacker.

Middle linebacker Fred Warner is the leader of the group, of course. He signed his massive contract extension a year ago. And while Dr. Greenlaw has established a penchant for clutch tackles at weakside linebacker over the past three seasons, injuries have limited him to just three regular-season games in 2021.

This propelled Al-Shaair into the spotlight. He broke with 102 combined tackles on the season.

The 49ers hope to introduce all three linebackers in 2022. That would allow for particularly robust base defensive packages at the second tier, which certainly excites Ryans — a former All-Pro linebacker with a soft spot for his old positional group.

It would also be a treat for 49ers linebacker coach Johnny Holland, who is back full-time with the team after missing much of 2021 with multiple myeloma.

There’s clearly a strong bond between Holland, Ryans and the 49ers linebacking trio – all of whom have been with the team since at least 2019 (Warner was drafted in 2018, and Greenlaw and Al-Shaair arrived the following year ). Holland, who played linebacker for Green Bay from 1987 to 1993, was the Ryans’ post coach with Houston from 2006 to 2010. He co-coached the 49ers’ linebackers with Ryans for three seasons, starting with the arrival of Warner in 2018.

Even though Ryans became defensive coordinator in 2021, he has maintained a close bond with the linebackers who have flourished under his leadership. The quintet even held a brief on-court summit at the start of Wednesday’s practice.

“It’s just us talking, casual conversation,” Al-Shaair said after Wednesday’s practice. “We are talking about women and children. We are just coming to our senses, ready to practice. DeMeco, even though he’s the D coordinator, he’s still our linebacker coach at heart. Johnny was his trainer. It’s just a very close bond between all of us.

For Al-Shaair, that bond was born out of quality time with Holland in 2019. He signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent from Florida Atlantic that year. Due to a torn ACL he suffered during his senior season in college, Al-Shaair was one of the few players to stay in Santa Clara that summer for rehab.

Holland, now 57, became a mentor who helped Al-Shaair feel at home after what could have been a lonely move across the country.

“I didn’t even have a car,” Al-Shaair said. “I would cycle from the Santa Clara Marriott to his house. We went out on weekends. Me and Johnny were really close since I was young as a rookie, so not having him last year really hurt me.

Even though Holland didn’t travel with the 49ers while undergoing cancer treatment in 2021, he stayed in touch with Al-Shaair and the other linebackers, especially after games.

“He could be over there getting treatment and he would send me an entire paragraph,” Al-Shaair said.

Holland joined the 49ers full-time for the offseason program and seemed particularly excited about starting training camp.

“He’s like a grandfather,” Al-Shaair said with a laugh. “He was there yesterday for our fitness test and he was already there taking pictures. It’s like a grandfather enjoying the moment. It’s great to have him back.

Although Holland’s positional group is now the strongest in the NFL, it will be a challenge for the 49ers to keep him that way. An inflection point is coming, as Al-Shaair and Greenlaw are only under contract through 2022. If both deliver quality 2022 seasons, there’s a chance the 49ers could afford just one more. between them in 2023.

This is, of course, a problem the 49ers would appreciate. It certainly illustrates how far Al-Shaair and Greenlaw have come since they were rookie roommates when they arrived in Santa Clara more than three years ago.

“I couldn’t stand him in the room,” Al-Shaair said with a laugh, noting that Greenlaw was a messy life partner, “but he’s my brother, my teammate.”

Since then, both linebackers have made their share of plays to complement Warner’s stardom. Greenlaw is famous for stopping Seattle’s Jacob Hollister a hair in front of the goal line in 2019. Al-Shaair had a huge interception against Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins ​​last season.

Both supports have earned the trust of their coaching staff, and Al-Shaair is relishing the progress he has made along the way. He recalled a scout doubting him during the pre-draft process, saying the NFL had safeties at Al-Shaair’s weight of 225 pounds.

“If I listened to what everyone told me about where I needed to be, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” Al-Shaair said.

As it turns out, the emphasis on more agility, even at the expense of some weight, has proven to be a fundamental tenet of the 49ers’ rise to power at linebacker. It’s been a general league-wide trend, but the 49ers pushed the evolution even more aggressively than most teams — and it played right into the Al-Shaair wheelhouse.

“On this team, if you’re a linebacker, you’re basically a bigger DB,” Al-Shaair said. “Because you cover wide receivers in the slot. You obviously need to cover the tight ends. A lot of what we do is run side to side in the passing game.

That speed is a major point of pride for 49ers linebackers, who often tease Ryans about how quickly the game has changed.

“His linebacker style back then, he was 250 pounds when he was playing,” Al-Shaair said. “All-Pro, great player. But we joke with him all the time, he doesn’t take roads without receivers in men’s coverage if he played today. It’s a different style now, happier.

And that’s why the 49ers aspire to see their established trio of linebackers on the field simultaneously in 2022. Warner, Greenlaw and Al-Shaair have versatile skills that can help guide the 49ers defense through an era of offensive advantages. important.

“Every day we are all competing from top to bottom,” Al-Shaair said. “Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Dre, Fred – we’ve grown together for the past two years. Always competing with each other, always criticizing each other, trying to learn from each other’s games. There are certain things that one of us does better than the other.

“At the end of the day, I think we’re the best band (in the NFL), but we have to put it on tape. When we put it on tape and practice with the best guys, you’re going to improve.

(Photo: Stan Szeto/USA Today)

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