SANTA CLARA —With 18 seconds remaining in the first half against Cleveland last year at Raymond James Stadium, then-Tampa Bay linebacker Kwon Alexander took an awkward step in pursuit of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, and fell to the ground, clutching his left knee.
“I was hoping it wasn’t an ACL,” Alexander said this week. The diagnosis was what he’d feared: He’d torn his anterior cruciate ligament, ending what was a productive season in Week 7. “I didn’t know how to feel.”
On Sunday, Alexander — signed this offseason by the San Francisco 49ers — will return to that same stadium in Tampa Bay to play his first game since the Oct. 21 injury, and it will be against his former team. Not only is he healthy, but in short order, he’s become one of the leaders of a revamped San Francisco pass rush.
“I’m just ready to get back out there and make some plays,” Alexander told the Examiner.
After being drafted by the Bucs in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the LSU product had built an extensive résumé, including a 2016 season where he led the entire NFL in solo tackles (108) and earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2017.
Before his injury, the Buccaneers and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, had been negotiating a contract extension. After he went down, Tampa Bay withdrew their interest.
After releasing former first-round pick Reuben Foster following a rash of arrests and domestic violence issues throughout his two-year stint in San Francisco, the 49ers needed a player to fill his void.
“We needed a dynamic football player at that position,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said during Alexander’s introductory press conference. “It’s a very critical position in our scheme … Kwon became the guy that we wanted to be that guy. It continued to gain momentum. The more we watched him, the more we liked, and there’s a lot to like.”
In March, the 49ers began what turned out to be an aggressive offseason by inking Alexander to a four-year, $54 million contract, but he didn’t hit the field until a week into training camp. After showing very few signs of rust, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh proceeded to insert the 25-year old into the starting lineup alongside second-year linebacker Fred Warner and rookie Dre Greenlaw, a fifth-round pick out of Arkansas.
“As our veteran guy, he kind of sees things that as rookies, we’re still learning to see,” Greenlaw said. “Playbook-wise, too, things that we don’t understand well, guys like him help us and kind of make it more simple for us.”
Routinely checking in on his teammates, Alexander also likes to make sure guys like Greenlaw are doing well off the field, as well as on.
“He’s like a big brother,” Greenlaw said. “He’s always done a good job of just making sure we’re okay … He keeps an eye out for us.”
Whenever asked about his own wellbeing, his play or his health, Alexander has a go-to descriptor: “Legendary.” It’s as much an approach as a catchphrase.
“I was using the word great because I didn’t like the word ‘G.O.O.D.,’” he said. “But what’s better than great? I was like, ‘legendary. You’re legendary from now on.’”
“He’s brought a whole mentality to this defense,” Warner said. “He’s brought out a lot in me and having him next to me gives me a lot of confidence. He works his tail off every day to become one of the best.”
Getting ready to return to Tampa, Alexander said he doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove, but he’s ready to play with the chip he’s had on his shoulder since the day he was drafted.
And while he’s excited to see his old friends and former home, his focus is locked in on making the most of his debut with his new team.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all of my old teammates but that will be after the game,” Alexander said. “We got to get to the game and get this win. That’s what I’m after.”