49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander practices, eyes postseason return

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has often referred to the potential return of linebacker Kwon Alexander from a torn left pectoral muscle as a "long shot."

On Thursday, that possibility became less far-fetched. Alexander was a surprise participant as the 49ers had a bye-week practice. In conjunction with Alexander's appearance, the 49ers opened his practice window to return from the injury, clearing the path for a possible return.

Asked how practice went and how he was feeling, Alexander turned to his favorite word: "Legendary," Alexander said, smiling. "I'm just happy to be back out there. It was fun to be back and just trying to get ready."

On Monday, Shanahan indicated the possibility of a return for Alexander had grown more real, but it would be more likely for a possible NFC Championship Game Jan. 19 rather than the team's first playoff game Jan. 11. "He's coming along," Shanahan said. "There's definitely going to be a chance. I don't think that will be this week, but if we're fortunate enough to win our first game, I think he could have a chance after that. We're still holding out hope for that, but we'll see how it goes over these next couple weeks."

Alexander, who said he is planning to return whenever the coaching staff tells him he can, suffered the injury Oct. 31 and landed on injured reserve Nov. 5. League rules stipulate that before he could open his practice window, he had to be on that list for eight weeks. Now, the Niners have a three-week period in which they can bring him back to the active roster.

He can be activated at any point during that time as he attempts to follow in the footsteps of Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt. Watt suffered the same injury four days before Alexander and returned to practice Dec. 24. He was activated Tuesday and is expected to play Saturday against the Buffalo Bills.

Alexander, 25, said Thursday that he has been in touch with Watt during this process, knowing he was going through something similar.

"I talked to him," Alexander said. "I'm happy to see him back. I can't wait to see him play on Saturday. He lifted me up, too, a little bit. I appreciate him."

The 49ers brought back defensive lineman Kentavius Street from injured reserve earlier this season, which means if Alexander is activated, he's the last player who could return from IR.

The 49ers signed Alexander to a four-year, $54 million contract March 13, making him one of the league's highest-paid linebackers. He quickly brought return on investment as one of the league's better coverage linebackers as well as being an emotional leader for the defense. In eight games, he had 34 tackles, an interception, four passes defended and a forced fumble.

Although a torn pectoral muscle -- and the accompanying surgery -- usually requires about a six-month recovery, Alexander said he never put any limit on when he could be back.

"That's always my mindset," Alexander said. "I never put a hold on me. Wherever my mind takes me, that's where I'm gonna go."