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Free the Safeties
The San Francisco 49ers’ 2018 safety group was one of the most underperforming in the NFL. The started the season with great promise, but between missed angles, missed games due to injury, and players who started out on the practice squad earning starts by the end of the season. Outside of a great edge rusher or three, most people expected safety to be a position where General Manager John Lynch would upgrade the talent on the roster. Many fans went to bed dreaming of Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, or Tyrann Mathieu. They’ll at least bring in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix right?
Lynch responded by re-signing Jimmie Ward to a one-year prove-it deal. That’s it. This means if the 49ers don’t draft another safety this year, they will enter the 2019 offseason with this list of safeties: Adrian Colbert, Antone Exum Jr., D.J. Reed Jr., Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, and Terrell Williams Jr. With the current roster it is assumed that the two starters will probably come out of Ward, Tartt, Reed, and Colbert. Most fans are hoping that they will possibly move Tarvarius Moore back to safety, the position he played in college.
If you are wondering if this is a group of safeties who will be able to close the back end of the defense and create fear in the hearts and brains of quarterbacks, lets remind ourselves that this is the exact group of safeties the team played with last year. Looking at their career stats (below) doesn’t exactly instill a lot of faith this safety squad will be able to anchor the pass defense for the 49ers defense.
Ward and Tartt have the most game experience obviously, but neither of those players have shown the ability to make it through a 16-game season at safety. Ward’s best season came as a nickel-cornerback, and Tartt’s best season was probably his rookie season. Colbert’s best games also came his first year in the league. Exum spent his first two seasons playing primarily on special teams and spent the majority of his first season in San Francisco inactive, meaning last year was his first extended time starting in a defense. Reed is coming into only his second season and Williams has never suited up for a regular season NFL game. There is also a good chance that he starts at nickel-cornerback where he arguably played better last season.
The 49ers’ front office seems to be okay with bringing back the same safety group. John Lynch, a Hall of Fame safety himself, was asked about his feelings and the group and he responded by saying, “We like our free safety group. It was big for us to bring back Jimmie Ward…Aside from him, Adrian Colbert was a guy who for whatever reason didn't carry over that rookie season and then got hurt. But we felt like he was starting to play like the guy we saw his rookie season that we really thought was going to be our long term answer at free safety, so he's very much in that conversation."
With one of those two starting at free safety, that leaves Tartt as the probable starter at strong safety. Why would Lynch be so happy about a group who underachieved last season? One of the reasons could be that he just hopes that the talent will finally outweigh the injuries. Another reason could be the improvement at the edge and cornerback spots that free agency brought and the draft will probably also bring. With Dee Ford and whoever the 49ers add in the draft coming off the edge helping the three behemoths in the middle (DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Arik Armstead) create pressure up the middle, the safeties should hopefully not have to cover as much ground or for as much time as they did in 2018.
Maybe Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan are hoping that one more year in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s system will help this safety group perform like Lynch says they can. Lynch could also just be throwing up a smokescreen for the team’s intentions this draft. The safety group in this year’s draft isn’t incredibly deep, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the team invested another pick in another safety.
Tartt, Colbert, and Reed have flashed the skill needed to start at safety in the league, but the first two haven’t proved they can stay on the field long enough keep the team from looking somewhere else. It would be really surprising if the team were actually planning on using Ward at safety for any extended period of time, as he has played some of his worst football as a free safety.
From looking at the playing and injury history of the 49ers safeties, conventional wisdom says that the cornerbacks will not have a lot of help in coverage behind them, but Tartt, Colbert, Reed, and Ward have all shown to be sure tacklers. This could be important depending on how many times teams rush the ball while the 49ers defense lines up with wide 9T rushers. Their sure tackling might be needed on unexpected runs, but their unproven skill set in coverage could have opponents’ quarterbacks feasting with deep balls.
Lynch and Shanahan will show their hands in three weeks and draft any additional competition to start at either of the safety positions.
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