Image Credit: Associated Press
True to his word, Kyle Shanahan continues to have his eye on 2019 and beyond when it comes to who is active on game day and how snaps are divvied up. Known quantities and solid contributors such as Marquise Goodwin and Earl Mitchell saw their snap counts decrease in favor of younger players at their positions and Sheldon Day was a game-day inactive despite being healthy. Among the players who stood out on Sunday were D.J. Reed and Marcell Harris, who were both filling in for injured starters.
Reed, a rookie fifth-round choice from Kansas State, had received most of his playing time this season at free safety and not his natural cornerback position. His versatility is one of the reasons I thought he could be a late round steal for the 49ers. Reed has physical traits (31-inch arm length and 10-inch hands) that are rare among cornerbacks of his stature (Reed is 5’9”, 188 pounds). Against the Broncos on Sunday, Reed played in place of an injured K’Waun Williams at the nickel cornerback position and he made the most of it. Watching the television broadcast, Reed stood out, more so than Williams had all season. In college he was known for his aggressive style of play and for a team looking for impact players on defense, Reed certainly made his presence known; he finished with 12 tackles (10 solo tackles), 3 tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
Reed was not the only member of the 49ers’ 2018 draft class that had his best game of the season on Sunday. Marcell Harris, a sixth-round pick from the University of Florida, started at strong safety in place of the injured Jaquiski Tartt. Harris, who started the season on injured reserve while he recovered from a hamstring injury, was activated on November 1st. In his first start, on December 2 against Seattle, Harris played like a rookie who had been waiting all season to get his chance to shine. For better or worse he was going a hundred miles an hour the entire game, missing three tackles. His second start was much better, in fact, Harris did not miss a tackle and was the second leading tackler for the 49ers (tied with Richard Sherman). Harris finished with 7 total tackles (5 solo) and 2 tackles for loss. He also made plays in crunch time, something the defense has been looking for all season. On back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter, Harris made solo tackles to get the defense off the field. On third down, Harris tackled Denver running back Royce Freeman for a 1-yard loss and on the next play made an open-field tackle on running back Philip Lindsey after a gain of a yard on fourth-and-3. Marcell Harris does not have the prototypical size for a strong safety in the Seattle Cover-3 scheme that the 49ers run, but he is an aggressive, sure-tackler that can excel as an in-the-box safety.
Reed and Harris each got the start on Sunday because of injuries to the people ahead of them on the depth chart, but each has earned the chance to start next week and each of the remaining three weeks of the season. Tartt and Williams are known quantities at this point, and every opportunity should be taken to determine what the team has in D.J. Reed and Marcell Harris. Last year, Adrian Colbert got his chance to start because of an injury and he played well down the stretch. Ahkello Witherspoon got his opportunity to start mid-way through last season and finished the season as a starter. Both Colbert and Witherspoon showed enough promise while playing out a lost season to be the presumptive starters coming into the 2018 season, but their play this season has led to questions about the long-term viability of both players. In order to avoid the same sort of misevaluation with Reed and Harris, the 49ers need to capitalize on this opportunity to evaluate them against top competition. To close out the season the 49ers play three teams (Seahawks, Rams and Bears) who will be fighting either for a spot in the playoffs or for home-field advantage. This will be a great opportunity to see how the young players measure up.
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