Image Credit: Scott Young
2018 was a rough season for the 49ers’ secondary. At cornerback opposite Richard Sherman was a rotating door of players, big plays were routinely given up and the group as a whole came away with, let me check……
That’s right: zero interceptions. Part of the problem could be laid at the feet of the safety group. The 49ers started eight different combinations of safeties during the season, a group that included two rookies, one of whom was a converted cornerback and the second was coming off an Achilles tear.
Hopes were high for the secondary coming into 2018. Adrian Colbert had shown serious promise his rookie year and both the team and the fan base were expecting him to make a big jump in year two. Instead, problems started in Week 1 against the Vikings and snowballed from there. Bad angles lead to poor tackling and soon opposing players were running free in the back end of the defense. I’m still big on Colbert; he was my breakout second-year player, and I think he still has the potential to be a good safety in the league.
Jaquiski Tartt has consistently shown the ability to excel at either of the safety positions. He opened 2017 with a highlight interception of Cam Newton while starting at free safety while possessing the size and tackling to shift to an in-the-box safety role and make plays around the line of scrimmage. But much like Jimmie Ward, there are questions about Tartt’s durability, after staying relatively injury free his first two seasons, he played only 17 games combined in 2017 and 2018.
Behind Colbert are Antone Exum and D.J. Reed. Reed initially took some snaps at safety during OTAs prior to the season but was thrust into the role due to multiple injuries; he played well enough but is better suited for cornerback. Exum and Tartt recorded the only interceptions of 2018, with Exum taking his to the house against the Chargers in Week 4. Exum is a fine depth piece but not someone the team should count on for an expanded role.
Marcell Harris, a rookie out of Florida, came off the IR and saw extended playing time following Tartt’s shoulder injury. He delivered a few highlight-worthy hits but struggled to find consistency. He’s an early favorite of the fanbase but has a lot to prove is he’s going to challenge Tartt for the starting strong safety role.
The two wild cards in the safety room are Jimmie Ward and Tarvarius Moore. Ward is more then capable to man the single high safety position, he has vision, speed, and isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder at the point of contact. But he just can’t stay on the field. He’s played 16 games only once, 2015, and has found himself at practically every position in the secondary. But the best safety on the roster might be Moore, who was a standout safety at Southern Miss and is a phenomenal athlete; at 6’2” and 200 lbs. his measurables pushed him into the third round of the 2018 draft. Following Ward’s injury during OTAs Moore was moved back to his natural position and thrived, later saying during an interview that it was “good to be home.”
For what was possibly the weakest group on the roster, the front office elected to not only bring back two free agents, but refused to add any new blood to the room. Does Moore stay at safety and possibly challenge Colbert for the starting spot, and if so, what does that mean to an already thin cornerback group? Free agency and the draft were flush with players that could have stepped in on day one, including a future Hall of Famer. The safety group was frankly bad last season and in today’s NFL where coverage is king, the front office decided to rebuild the defense like this was the early part of the century and hope the pass rush solves the team’s coverage ills. New defensive backs coach Joe Woods has said that the team will be a two high safety alignment more often this season so maybe they believe that will be the answer. But either way the safety group is the same as it was last season, and it wasn’t good.
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