The linebacker position will be extremely important for the San Francisco 49ers as they look to keep Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals offense at bay in their Week 1 matchup on Sunday, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will be able to call on his best player at that spot in Fred Warner.
Warner was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list this week, clearing him to assume his position as the quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker.
Just as important in slowing down Murray will be his running mate at the position, Kwon Alexander, who came back earlier than expected from a torn pectoral last season to play in the postseason as the Niners made it to Super Bowl LIV.
However, Alexander was limited in the playoffs and was clearly not the same player he was during the first half of 2019, which saw him make an excellent start to his career as a Niner.
The last game in which Alexander was fully healthy was the Week 9 showing with the Cardinals last season when he suffered what most thought at the time to be a season-ending injury.
Alexander is among the emotional leaders on the 49ers defense, he is a tone-setter who brings energy to a group of players that pride themselves on playing fast and physical. But Alexander does a lot more than just help establish a mindset. Like Warner, he is an athletically gifted linebacker who can make a significant impact in coverage, against the run and as a pass rusher.
That athleticism will be key against Murray. He has the sideline-to-sideline speed to be an effective spy against arguably the most dynamic dual-threat quarterback in the league. Alexander's physical gifts and his awareness have allowed him to excel covering running backs – with Arizona tailback Kenyan Drake a likely target out of the backfield – and in defending intermediate routes, which have been an area of comparative struggle for Murray compared to his excellence in pushing the ball downfield.
Alexander's talents as a blitzer could force Murray to bail out of the pocket quicker than he would like and run into the pressure off the edges from the likes of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Arik Armstead and also allows the 49ers to disguise their looks and keep quarterbacks guessing.
In the first Niner in focus video of the season, we look at the plays that illustrate Alexander's potential importance in the opener.
There has been nothing to suggest Warner will not be up to speed in time for Sunday despite his time away from the facility. Should Warner have any struggles, though, Alexander may have to take on a more prominent role to compensate.
San Francisco has only had Alexander fully healthy for eight games after handing him a four-year, $54 million contract last offseason. As the Niners start what they hope will be another run to the Super Bowl, Alexander has the chance to reiterate his worth by helping the defense contain one of the league's most promising young quarterbacks.
Media courtesy Michael Zagaris/Getty Images