If someone had me choose between playing defensive back or sitting for a week in an isolation chamber, I’d probably pick seven days of pure sensory deprivation.
We all know the scrutiny a quarterback receives from fans and so-called experts. But a defensive back is alone on an island. Any casual fan can spot his mistakes or the flaws in his game. When he wins, the stadium erupts with thunderous applause and adulation. When he fails, however, the heavy burden sits upon his shoulders.
The San Francisco 49ers have had their fair share of secondary struggles since Super Bowl XLVII, and have had an average secondary since. While the run defense crumbled like stale bread, the secondary remained a slightly reliable unit.
The 2013 and 2014 seasons saw the 49ers’ secondary ranked 7th and 5th overall. The downfall came in 2015 when the defensive backfield fell to 27th overall. Last year, they finished an injury-plagued season ranked 14th. Eric Reid is the only player left from the 2014 season when the team finished with an 8-8 record.
This year, Pro Football Focus is projecting Jimmie Ward, Reid, Ahkello Witherspoon and Rashard Robinson as week one starters. Let’s use this secondary as a starting point for our discussion.
According to Pro Football Focus data and rankings, Jimmie Ward is the 49ers best defensive back. He ranked 45th out of 111 cornerbacks in the NFL. Reid comes in at 70, Jaquiski Tartt is ranked 73, and Robinson rounds out the defensive back roster at number 80. The other men listed on the 49ers roster as a cornerback, safety or defensive back is below 100, or the player does not have enough playing time to have a rank.
Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh’s white whale is bringing the 49ers defense from the chains of Jim O’Neil’s dark dungeon and back into the light. The challenge, however, is achieving this goal with a secondary that hardly scratches the Mendoza Line.
It’s clear Ward, Reid, Tartt and Robinson make this year’s 53-man roster. What’s more important is for Reid to take the mantle and be the leader the secondary needs. Ward, on the other hand, needs to make it through the grind of complete NFL season.
Newcomers Malik Golden and Ahkello Witherspoon are the types of players the 49ers need to develop. They may not start, but these two men can learn the new, complex system and pick up experience this year. Plus, I’m excited about Witherspoon. He only allowed 28 catches on 88 attempts while at Colorado, giving up just two touchdowns. I have no doubt his coaches at Christian Brothers High in Sacramento are very proud of their prodigal son.
The remaining cornerbacks will most likely be Donte Johnson, Will Redmond, K’Waun Williams and Keith Reaser. Vinnie Sunseri, a favorite of the Boise 49er crew, will round out the secondary, and continue to be a versatile player for the 49ers.
This article has been the hardest I’ve had to write for the good people at 49ers Hub. The secondary, as it stands today, is very fluid. Every time I’d finish a draft, I’d dislike my effort or ideas, toss it and start over.
I could be completely wrong and see the team keep Lorenzo Jerome or Prince Charles Iworah. No matter what, don’t be surprised to see a combination of players at various secondary positions this preseason – nickel, slot, ‘dog’ – and have Saleh keep the players that are working best together.
What hurts the remaining defensive backs is their collective lack of professional experience. For example, I have little information on Adrian Colbert, a rookie from the University of Miami. I’ve watched professional football religiously for over thirty years and can’t say I’ve ever seen Don Jones play a single down in the NFL. As it turns out, he’s been a journeyman since entering the league in 2013. He’s played in 56 games, has one start and accumulated 21 tackles.
As much as I want the 49ers to find hidden gems in the draft and free agency, I don’t think Colbert, Jones, Iworah, Jerome or Zach Franklin are the players John Lynch is looking for.
I do see the 49ers moving Chanceller James to the practice squad. He’s the type of player the 49ers need to develop this season, and then give him a shot to beat out Sunseri for a roster spot next season.
Can Saleh Fix Average?
This question, fellow Faithful, is the $6 million question we have going into this season. The good thing: Saleh is not our previous defensive coordinator. However, if I’m an offensive coordinator with a big armed quarterback running my offense, I’m going after the 49ers’ secondary until they make significant stops.
What Saleh does have is a beefed up defensive line and a solid group of linebackers, which helps hide an underperforming secondary. Exotic coverages don’t mean a thing unless a defense has the guys up front to do the real work.
On August 11, we’ll get to see if Saleh can turn the leaden 49ers secondary into gold.