SANTA CLARA — Linebacker Kwon Alexander’s return to practice Thursday, after two months away, had the desired and emotional charge expected from the 49ers’ “hype guy.”
“Just him being on the field, his knowledge of the game, his enthusiasm — he’s probably one of the most valuable people in our organization,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “That’s why they brought him here, that’s why they paid him.”
Alexander, out since an Oct. 31 pectoral tear, looks capable of suiting up for the playoff opener in a Jan. 11 divisional-round game, although coach Kyle Shanahan suggested Monday that the ensuing NFC Championship Game is more likely for Alexander’s potential return.
“Whatever coach tells me, I’m going to be ready for whatever situation it is, and I’ll be prepared if it is,” Alexander said.
Alexander started at weak-side linebacker the first eight games, and, after the injury, he’s remained a constant presence, and a busy body.
For one, he’s sought advice from Houston Texans star J.J. Watt about his own comeback from a pectoral tear. Said Alexander: “I can’t wait to see him play Saturday. He lifted me up a little bit so I appreciate him.”
As a side gig, Alexander personally has sold “way, way past a 1,000” sweatshirts and T-shirts emblazoned with the linebacker corps’ “Hot Boyzz” nickname. Teammates, office staff and fans everywhere sought his merchandise before it sold out. “I’m going to make some new ones for the playoffs, by the end of the day or tomorrow, if I can hurry up and get them out,” Alexander said.
“He’s the emotional leader of our team. He’s the hype guy that gets everybody going,” said Dre Greenlaw, Alexander’s replacement at weak-side linebacker. “We definitely missed that. Having him back out there, you could just tell by practice today, how much fun and energy we had.”
#49ers starting wild-card-bye practice:
• LB Kwon Alexander practicing first time since Oct 31 pectoral tear
• No sign of DE Dee Ford, QB CJ Beathard
• SS Jaquiski Tartt in non-contact jersey, as is Kwon pic.twitter.com/dqftWnkBJk
— 𝙲𝚊𝚖 𝙸𝚗𝚖𝚊𝚗 (@CamInman) January 2, 2020
Alexander’s love for playing football rather than hawking shirts is what drove him back Thursday in a blue, no-contact jersey. He lined up next to leading tackler Fred Warner for linebacker warmups and looked smooth responding to the instructions of assistants DeMeco Ryans and Johnny Holland.
Alexander, acquired in free agency, produced key takeaways (interception at Cincinnati, forced fumble at Washington) before getting hurt in the Halloween victory at Arizona. He regained full-range of motion within a month of surgery and isn’t thinking about the risks of a speedy comeback.
By opening Alexander’s three-week evaluation window Thursday, the 49ers must decide on his roster spot before leaving on a potential trip Jan. 26 to Miami for the Super Bowl, if they advance that far.
Greenlaw heroically saved Sunday night’s 26-21 win at Seattle with a goal-line tackle in the final seconds. If Alexander gains clearance and becomes the 49ers’ second and final candidate to come off injured reserve, the 49ers likely would use a combination of Greenlaw and Alexander with Warner, pushing rookie Azeez Al-Shaair to the bench.
DEE FORD’S COMEBACK
The status of defensive end Dee Ford is more of a mystery. The edge rusher has missed most of the past two months with a hamstring strain. He was not seen rehabilitating during Thursday’s 30-minute media access, but he later entered the locker room in workout attire after apparently doing individual conditioning.
Without Ford, the 49ers’ pass rush has struggled to rack up sacks and close out games, and their edge-rushing options outside of Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead are Solomon Thomas and Anthony Zetter.
Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt practiced with a no-contact jersey, as he did last week, in what sets up as a playoff return from his Dec. 1 rib fracture. Marcell Harris has started the past four games at strong safety and arguably had his best outing last game.
Ahkello Witherspoon lined up with Richard Sherman to lead cornerback drills and apparently remains the starting right cornerback, although that job likely will be closely evaluated leading into the playoffs. Witherspoon got benched before the 49ers defense’s final series in Seattle, replaced by Emmanuel Moseley.
Daniel Brunskill started the final two games at right guard while Mike Person coped with a months-long neck issue, and that could remain the case going into the playoffs.
“If it gets flared up, it takes time, but we don’t have any time right now, so you put your foot on the pedal and go,” Person said. “Dan doesn’t need much help. He’s such a smart guy. The amount of work he puts in, it really is pretty impressive, so I just try to help with little pointers. He’s such a smart kid that, as he’s proven all year, when his number is called, he’ll be ready.”
Nose tackle Earl Mitchell was back on the 49ers practice field after a year’s absence. Officially re-signed Wednesday, Mitchell is wearing No. 93; his former No. 90 now belongs to Kevin Givens, who made his NFL debut Sunday night in the 26-21 win at Seattle.
After getting a break on New Year’s Day, the 49ers returned to the practice field for about an hour workout Thursday, and a similar session is scheduled Friday. They will practice Tuesday through Thursday next week ahead of their playoff opener, against either the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks or the Philadelphia Eagles.
The 49ers will not distribute an official participation report after practices until Tuesday. No formal press conferences will take place until then, either, although the media will have locker-room access today and Friday.
Kicker Robbie Gould, for the third consecutive December, has won the NFC’s Special Teams Player of the Month award. He’s made his past 10 field-goal attempts, including game winners as time expired against the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams.
Gould’s strong month comes after a career-high eight missed field-goal attempts, plus a three-game hiatus to cure a quadriceps injury. He is 23-for-31 on field-goal attempts this season, 0-for-4 from at least 50 yards.
In Gould’s 15-year career, this is his fifth playoff appearance, and he’s 8-for-8 on field-goal attempts and 20-for-20 on point-after tries, having kicked in the postseason for the Chicago Bears (2005, ’06, ’10) and New York Giants (2016). He made his only field goal attempt (44 yards) to cap the 2006 Bears’ scoring in their Super Bowl loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Miami, site of this season’s Super Bowl on Feb. 2.
NEW STADIUM DECOR
By virtue of their first NFC West title since 2012, the 49ers have an addition to their Levi’s Stadium marquee: “Congratulations 2019 NFC WEST CHAMPIONS”