SANTA CLARA — Dre Greenlaw would be pleasantly surprised should he be named to the Pro Bowl Wednesday, but would do so with mixed emotions.
The 49ers’ outside linebacker said he doesn’t play for recognition, although he admits the lack of same would be fuel for the fire which makes him one of the better outside linebackers in the NFL.
Besides, actually showing up to the renamed “Pro Bowl Games” in Las Vegas the week of Feb. 6 would mean something went very wrong with the 49ers’ postseason.
If Greenlaw and a handful of other teammates are named Pro Bowlers, they’d much rather be excused so they can prepare to play as the NFC representative in Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona on Feb. 12.
“Hopefully we’ll be playing so we won’t have to worry about all that,” Greenlaw said Tuesday as the 49ers (10-4) began preparations to face the Washington Commanders (7-6-1) on Christmas Eve at Levi’s Stadium.
Teammates who won the fan voting at their respective positions include running back Christian McCaffrey, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tackle Trent Williams, tight end George Kittle, defensive end Nick Bosa and middle linebacker Fred Warner.
Selections are based on one-third fan balloting, one-third player balloting and one-third coaches balloting, so winning the fan vote guarantees nothing. This year’s event does not include an actual football game, instead substituting skills tests and events and concluding with a flag football game.
Not that any of that matters. The players crave the recognition and prestige that comes with being selected, plus the opportunity for some paid time off in Las Vegas with players throughout the league.
Greenlaw, 25, is having a Pro Bowl worthy season by any standard, and has broken into the national consciousness over the last two games. First, Greenlaw had an interception of Tom Brady and 16 tackles against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before having Brady autograph the football, a moment that went viral on social media.
Then, when the 49ers traveled to Seattle on short rest and won the NFC West title, Greenlaw’s forced fumble against Travis Homer was recovered by teammate Charvarius Ward and returned 40 yards to set up a touchdown that swung the game permanently in the 49ers’ favor.
“Dre is having the best year of his career,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. “He just needs to keep it going.”
But linebacker is a tougher position in the NFC than the AFC. Besides Warner, players having seasons rivaling Greenlaw’s include Demario Davis of New Orleans, Eric Kendricks of Minnesota, LaVonte David of Tampa Bay and Bobby Wagner of the Los Angeles Rams.
So if it doesn’t happen, Greenlaw will convert minor disappointment into something much larger simply for the sake of the 2023 regular season.
“I’d feel slighted anyway, probably,” Greenlaw said. “They’ll just pay next year. They’ll pay sometime. I’d always have it in the back of my mind.”
Greenlaw leads the NFL’s top-ranked defense with 111 tackles. He had a 23-yard scoop-and-score touchdown to close out a 33-17 win over Miami in Week 13, a game in which he also ran down Tyreek Hill from behind.
Beyond the flash, Greenlaw is playing with more substance than he ever has. Last season, Greenlaw had a groin injury in Week 1 and was out until the tail end of the season, appearing in just three regular-season games but performing well in three playoff games.
He doesn’t consider himself a “breakout” player.
“I think it’s probably a continuation of what I can do and what I should have done last year,” Greenlaw said. “My teammates and a lot of people know what I can do. It’s just about staying healthy. Now I’m showing more people what I can do.”