SANTA CLARA, Calif. — What do the San Francisco 49ers look for in a linebacker? Someone who has played defensive back.
Fred Warner essentially was a big-bodied nickelback at BYU, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles played safety at Arizona, and at Indiana, Marcelino McCrary-Ball lined up at “husky,” which is what the Hoosiers called their quasi nickel-linebacker role.
“Even Dre Greenlaw came in and said he was a cornerback in high school,” linebackers coach Johnny Holland noted this week. “So most of our guys have been secondary guys who moved to linebacker. They have the speed and the ability to play the position and they understand what’s happening back there.”
The latest on that list is Jalen Graham, the 49ers’ final pick in the April draft. Graham arrived at Purdue as a safety before moving to a hybrid linebacker role. Over the past week, he has been the 49ers’ third-string middle linebacker, taking the play calls from Holland via a receiver in his helmet and then lining up the defense.
“I never expected him to be a Mike linebacker coming in,” Holland said this week. “But seeing his ability to learn and pick up stuff and play multiple positions as a rookie is valuable. And the way to learn the defense the quickest is to play Mike linebacker. And he’s done an excellent job — smart player. He has some length, he can communicate the defense well and he has a chance to play behind the best Mike linebacker in the league.”
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At 6-foot-2 with 33-inch arms, Graham cuts a similar profile to San Francisco’s starting middle linebacker, Warner. In fact, when Graham lines up next to fellow draft pick Dee Winters as they’ve done throughout training camp, you see a younger version of the Warner-Greenlaw duo. The 49ers likened the speedy, squat Winters to Greenlaw during the draft, and in recent practices, it’s easy to understand why.
Winters has been zooming around the practice field from the weakside linebacker spot, bursting forward for a stop on Tyrion Davis-Price on one play and knocking away a Sam Darnold toss in the flat on another. On Thursday, he drifted back to intercept a Trey Lance pass just as Greenlaw had done against Brock Purdy earlier in the week.
“Just watching him in drills, he can strike and get off blocks,” Holland said of Winters. “And that’s the biggest asset of Dre Greenlaw — that he can strike and get off blocks and close quick and make tackles.”
Daily linebacker drills. The 49ers’ two rookies, Dee Winters (53) and Jalen Graham (50), have looked good early in camp. pic.twitter.com/gvY1x1dx7K
— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 4, 2023
While Winters has impressed with his zip, Graham has stood out for his brains and versatility. His S2 Cognition score, which measures how quickly players process and react to visual information, was very high and on par with the scores of many of the league’s starting linebackers.
Anthony Poindexter isn’t surprised. He was Graham’s first defensive backs coach at Purdue and watched him start eight games at safety as a true freshman.
That’s an impressive feat on any college team. It may have been even more noteworthy at Purdue considering the safeties ran the defense. They received the play call, made the adjustments and lined up their teammates.
Because of that Poindexter said he made an effort to recruit smart guys. That’s why he targeted Graham, an AP student in the chem-bio curriculum at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. Students needed to pass a test to get into the school and they had to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA to stay there.
And while Graham was a scholar in the classroom, he was a terror at safety.
“He’d come down, hit guys,” his high school coach, Thomas Wilcher, said in a phone interview. “He was aggressive. He has a mean streak in him that was out of this world, boy. When he’s got that light on — whoooooo! — it’s on. He goes into a zone.”
Graham also was the school’s quarterback, leading his team to an 11-2 record his senior year. One of those wins was a dramatic, walk-off victory on the road against Cleveland St. Edward. Wilcher remembers taking a one-point lead with 90 seconds to go.
“I told the kicker: ‘Do not kick the ball deep. Put it on the ground and we’ll be fine. We’ll win the game,’” Wilcher recalled. “This kid kicked the ball deep to their No. 1 player. He takes off and runs it back all the way.”
St. Edward now led by five points, the home crowd erupted and Graham and Cass Tech seemed to be in an impossible situation. On fourth-and-27 and with no time left on the clock, however, he drifted to his left and heaved a pass that descended toward the goal line.
“He threw that bad boy on the run from about 60, 65 yards,” Wilcher said. “It was on the money. The (wide receiver) jumped up, caught it, we scored and — boom! — that was it. The game was over.”
Poindexter watched Graham perform similar heroics in a wet, rainy game in Detroit that fall. He was certain he found an excellent protege at safety. Graham was so intriguing, in fact, that Poindexter kept wondering why some of the big-time programs like Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan, which was only a 40-minute drive away, weren’t pouncing.
The worries continued after Graham’s freshman season. Purdue reshuffled its coaching staff that offseason and the incoming crew wanted someone to play its newly created “dog” position, which essentially was a nickel-linebacker hybrid role. They immediately eyed the tall, long-limbed Graham for the job.
“We didn’t really have anyone at that spot at that point,” Poindexter said. “And when you walk in the building and you look at him you say, ‘Oh, he must be a linebacker.’”
A new position in a new defense with new coaches? These days, that scenario has college players scrambling for the transfer portal, and Poindexter knew that Graham preferred to remain at safety. But instead of complaining, he started putting on more weight for the new role.
“He never batted an eye,” Poindexter said. “He showed up every day, worked hard and kept getting better. To me that says a lot about a guy, in this day and age, that they want to move you from a position that you think you can play, and for the betterment of the team, you move to another spot.”
The move to the hybrid role meant that Graham had a different responsibility from play to play. On some snaps, he might be responsible for covering a tight end or a receiver out of the slot. On others, he was tasked with stuffing the run. Sometimes, he even rushed off the edge like a defensive end and he had a sack in each of the last two seasons.
The closest thing the 49ers have to that role is strongside linebacker, which is what Azeez Al-Shaair, now a member of the Tennessee Titans, played the last four seasons. Oren Burks has been in that spot with the first-team defense in training camp with Graham filling in from time to time with the second-team squad in addition to his middle linebacker duties with the third-string unit.
Scot McCloughan, a former general manager for the 49ers, said he gave Graham a fourth-round grade in each of the last two seasons, suggesting that the 49ers, who took Graham with the fifth-to-last pick in the draft, got a bargain.
“I’m telling you, this cat’s got change of direction, he’s got instincts, he’s got eyes,” McCloughan said in May. “And he’s got pass rush, too. So on third down, he can put his hand on the ground.”
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Wilcher, Graham’s high school coach, described his former pupil as a “plus-one” — someone who can cover like a defensive back and hit like a linebacker.
“Having a player like that is like having a cheat code on defense,” Wilcher said.
(Photo: Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)
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