In Case of Emergency:Juggling the Covid-19 List and Possible Replacements for Rams Game
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The San Francisco 49ers football club has been winning week in and week out in one single category: lowest number of COVID-19 cases.
Through the first 17 weeks of the 2021 season, the team had not lost any starters or contributors for a game due to the coronavirus. It seems that the Omicron Variant has found a way onto their roster. On Monday, the 49ers front office placed cornerbacks Dontae Johnson, K’Waun Williams, and free safety Jimmie Ward on the COVID-19 list. Running back Raheem Mostert was also placed on the list, but he is already on injured reserve, so that doesn’t affect the roster at all.
Rookie cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir followed their veteran teammates onto the COVID list on Tuesday. This leaves only the quickly aging and ineffective Josh Norman as the only healthy CB on the active roster. The good news for the 49ers is that with the new NFL COVID-19 rules, all five of those defensive backs could be back for the 49ers on Sunday if they are symptom-free by Saturday. Unfortunately for the 49ers there is no real definitive answers on whether that will actually happen. With their final game against the Los Angeles Rams deciding whether they enter the playoffs as a Wild Card team or watch the postseason from home, a sit-and-wait approach seems like a bad idea.
So - what else are their options?
Activate From the Injured Reserve List
Also on Tuesday, the 49ers activated cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and safety Tavon Wilson from the IR list. This doesn’t mean that they will be ready for Sunday, but it does give the team the opportunity to utilize one or both of these players should they be healthy enough to play. Moseley was slated as CB2 opposite the planned CB1 Jason Verrett until an ACL injury ended Verrett’s season before it started. Moseley could start opposite Norman on Sunday. Moseley has had a good season when he has been able to line up on the field, but his continued time away due to injury means he could be a bit rusty lining up across from the Rams’ receiver duo of Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr.
Wilson was signed in the offseason as a depth piece. He hasn’t played for the 49ers since October, with a foot injury landing him on IR on November 15. Wilson has had an up-and-down career but was showing his abilities for the 49ers in the off-season and contributed on special teams before the IR designation. If Ward is not able to come back, the Wilson is a possible replacement, although it seems more likely that Jaquiski Tartt would slide over to free safety and rookie Talanoa Hufanga would get the start at strong safety.
Mining the Practice Squads
If those defensive backs don’t make it back by Sunday, other teams’ practice squads are a great place look for a possible replacement starter. Here is a look at look at nine possible targets who have NFL starting experience and/or the franchise has some familiarity with.
Bashaud Breeland, CB, Arizona Cardinals: A name that jumps off the list of CBs on practice squads is Breeland. He is an eight-year NFL veteran with 101 starts and 16 career interceptions who is currently on the Cardinals’ practice squad. A fourth-rounder in the 2014 draft, Breeland has started for the Washington Football Team, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Minnesota Vikings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look like a possible option, as it looks like the Cardinals will protect Breeland in week 18, keeping other teams from being able to sign him off their practice squad.
Tim Harris, CB, Buffalo Bills: The 49ers’ front office selected Harris in the sixth round of the 2019 draft. He spent a couple of seasons with the 49ers, appearing in only two games. He’s bounced around a bit since the 49ers moved on from him in August of 2021. The Bills signed him and dropped him in a matter of a few days, and he then signed with the Cleveland Browns, with whom he appeared in one game, before re-signing to the Bills practice squad. He doesn’t have a lot of NFL playing experience, seeing the field in only three regular season games the past three seasons. He does have familiarity with the 49ers scheme, players, and coaches. Coming out of college, his pro comparison was Dontae Johnson, so maybe he will follow in Johnson’s footsteps and find his way back to the 49ers roster.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Denver Broncos: Clinton-Dix was a first-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers in 2014 after winning two national titles at Alabama. That isn’t the type of pedigree you normally see in players who are listed on practice squads. Clinton-Dix has 90 career starts with 16 interceptions and 522 tackles in his career. He was signed by the 49ers this offseason but was a part of the final cut process, and has since bounced to the Las Vegas Raiders and then to the Denver Broncos’ practice squad. Clinton-Dix was a possible inclusion in the 49ers initial 53-man roster this season, ultimately losing his place to Tavon Wilson. If the 49ers felt like they needed safety help with Ward not being able to return to the team, Clinton-Dix seems like a real good option to add either as depth behind Tartt and Hufanga.
D.J. Swearinger, S, Indianapolis Colts: Another experienced veteran who is spending the end of his career on practice squads. After being drafted in the second round in 2013 by the Houston Texans, Swearinger has started 73 games and recorded 14 interceptions and 425 tackles for six different teams. Swearinger projects as more of a depth piece for most teams, but so does Josh Norman, and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has continued to start him over other options. Swearinger’s best campaigns came in 2017 and 2018 while playing for the then-Washington Redskins. He probably wouldn’t make a huge impact, but he could be worth a depth signing in-case one of the starting safeties get injured.
Will Redmond, CB, Indianapolis Colts: Redmond was a member of the 49ers’ current front office’s first NFL draft in 2016. Pre-draft reports had him slated as a first- or second-round draft pick, but he fell to the third and then was placed on IR due to a knee injury. The 49ers cut him the next year and Redmond has bounced from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Green Bay Packers, then to the Colts. The only team Redmond actually played any regular season games with was the Packers. He’s yet to record an interception, but the 49ers brass obviously liked him enough spend a Day 2 pick on him, and now that he is healthy, he may be a good option to fill in at one of the CB positions.
Damon Arnette, CB, Miami Dolphins: Arnette is included here mainly because of his draft pedigree. Arnette was picked by the Las Vegas Raiders 19th overall in 2020. After a disappointing two seasons in which he only saw eight games of on-field action, the Raiders cut him after a video of him brandishing a gun and threatening to kill someone went viral. This wasn’t his only off-field mistake, as he was also implicated in a hit-and-run and another off-field altercation. Arnette isn’t’ the type of player the 49ers usually target, so I don’t believe that he is a realistic target for the 49ers.
Karl Joseph, S, Pittsburgh Steelers: Joseph is another defensive back whom the Raiders drafted much higher than anyone else in the league had him slated. After the 2016 combine, Joseph was ranked the seventh-best DB in the draft, and the Raiders took him 14th overall. He spent his first four years in Oakland, starting 41 of the 49 games in which he appeared. He finished the 2019 season on injured reserve, and then the Raiders didn’t pick up his fifth-year option. After a season in Cleveland in 2020 Joseph ended up back with the Raiders, although he didn’t make it past the final cuts before the start of this season. The Steelers signed him to their practice squad the next day. Joseph isn’t an All-Pro or even a Pro Bowl-type player, but he does have game experience in the NFL, something not all practice squad players can say.
Darqueze Dennard, CB, San Francisco 49ers: Originally drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round (24th overall) in 2014, Dennard was just signed to the 49ers practice squad and then subsequently protected for Week 18. This would mean that he has a real opportunity to be activated on game day by Shanahan. Dennard spent his first six five seasons in the NFL with the Bengals before moving to Atlanta Falcons in 2020 and the New York Giants in 2021. He played one game for the Giants this season and also spent time on the Colts’ practice squad. Dennard has played in 87 regular season games and would at least give the team an experienced player opposite whoever ends up starting as CB1.
What Will They Do?
In short, who knows? The 49ers acquired Dennard and protected him, so he is a clear option for playing time. In all honesty, 49er fans better hope Shanahan is a religious man, because the best course of action might be praying that all or most of those COVID-19 affected defensive backs are able to come back and suit up on Sunday, because none of these options strike much confidence in shutting down the Rams’ dangerous passing game.
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