Two preseason games down and the defense has held its own.
In two games with a mix of ups and downs, a lot can be taken away from how the 49ers’ defense looked against both the Cowboys and the Broncos. However, there’s always room for improvement. A handful of penalties and blown coverages may have hurt some players’ stock. However, there were lots of positives to take away.
When roster cut downs begin, there are going to be difficult decisions on who will have to be let go on the defensive side of the ball.
In this piece, I’ll be going through one player at each position that I believe has the most to prove if they want to make the 53 man roster.
Interior defensive line: Sheldon Day
A tough one to begin. This came down to Day and Jullian Taylor, but I had to choose Day. On a stacked defensive line as it is, Day will be battling against the likes of not only Taylor, but D.J. Jones as well.
I consider Day the odd man out primarily because of how much praise both Jones and Taylor have received this off-season. DC Robert Saleh clearly sees something in Taylor, as they had him add 30 pounds in the offseason (275 to 305) to move him on the inside.
Aside from Taylor, Jones is arguably the best nose tackle on the team. As a result, Day will have to claw his way up if he wants to take a spot over these two men. Day is seen as more of a traditional space-eating defensive lineman in this scheme. In a rotational role last season, Day would finish with 11 total tackles, 2 sacks and 3 QB hits in 12 games. According to PFF, Day finished with a 61.2 overall grade, having a 67.6 in pass rushing and a 48.7 on run defense.
With other players such as Thomas and Armstead who can also play on the interior, Day will likely be buried on the depth chart once again.Although Day has been well placed on the interior depth chart so far this preseason, I believe that Jones has the higher upside as both a run stuffer and pass rusher from the interior.
Day and Jones will likely see similar snap counts over the next two preseason games. Will Day show enough to Saleh so that he commands a spot on the 53? So far through the preseason, Day has only contributed one total tackle. In the limited playing time remaining, he’ll have to give it his all if he wants to make it onto a loaded defensive line.
Defensive end: Ronald Blair III
Once again, another tough choice. This goes to show how much depth the 49ers have on the defensive line. This choice really came down between Blair and Damontre Moore. However, I feel that Moore won’t be as hard of a decision as will Blair. With the additions of both Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, on top of the flexibility of Armstead and Thomas, as well as the return of Kentavius Street, Blair will likely once again be in a rotational role that could see him with very few snaps.
However, even in a rotational role with Cassius Marsh last season, Blair finished with 5.5 sacks, a career high. His ability to be effective in a smaller role might be his saving grace for this upcoming season. According to PFF, Blair finished with a 66.5 run grade, and a 54.7 pass rush grade.
Going into a contract year, Blair will be looking to make every snap count considering his role might be reduced. In the last unofficial depth chart that was released, Blair was 3rd on the chart behind both both Dee Ford and Nick Bosa at left defensive end. This isn’t an exact sign of Blair’s ability, however, it’s more a showing of the depth the 49ers have.
Linebacker: Azeez Al-Shaair
The undrafted rookie out of Florida Atlantic made his name known early in the first preseason game against the Cowboys, finishing with a fumble recovery, as well as 4 total tackles, including one which went for a loss.
Shaair projects to play the MIKE position on defense, and has a decent shot to make the final roster, though David Mayo also could be a possible backup to Fred Warner. Mayo, who was seen as more of a special teams signing, is average as a backup at his best. This can open the door for Shaair to step in and make an immediate impact on the field.
In his career at FAU, Shaair finished with 395 total tackles, 31 of which went for a loss. Scouted as a possible mid to late round draft pick, Shaair went UDFA because of a torn ACL and MCL in his senior season.
One thing the 49ers have lacked the past few seasons has been linebackers who can wrap and tackle. During his time in college, Shaair was a menace as a tackler, averaging over 100 tackles in his three healthy seasons. High-tackling linebackers almost always have a knack for being around the ball. Although not known for playmaking, Shaair’s ability to be near the ball opens the door for takeaways. On a defense that can use any playmaking it can get, Shaair has the chance to do just that.
However, he will be fighting for a backup linebacker spot on the 53 that includes Mayo, Elijah Lee, Dre Greenlaw and Mark Nzechoa. I feel the linebacker unit is relatively thin, even with the addition of Kwon Alexander. Despite being an UDFA, if Shaair can bring the speed and athleticism that he showed in college and the first pair of preseason games, then his chances of making the 53 will dramatically increase.
Cornerback: Emmanuel Moseley
Although slightly undersized for cornerback in this scheme (5’11”,190 LBs.), Moseley brings feistiness and physicality at a position that has lacked these tangibles outside of Richard Sherman. After signing Jason Verrett and moving Tarvarius Moore back to free safety, the door for a spot on the cornerback chart appears wide open for Moseley.
However, he still has to battle the likes of Tim Harris, Dontae Johnson, and (arguably) Jimmie Ward for a spot on the 53. In my opinion, Sherman, Witherspoon, Verrett, K’waun Williams, and D.J. Reed are all the likely locks to make it out of the cornerbacks. One question regarding the final roster is whether or not the 49ers will carry six corners. With Ward’s positional flexibility, albeit with his health being a continuous question mark, the 49ers could afford to keep fewer cornerbacks. Keeping Moseley on the 53 would ensure the 49ers have options, even if he’s kept inactive.
One big point to bring out of this, is how are the 49ers going to value depth at this position? With question marks along the offensive line, amongst the defensive backs and even at linebacker, every spot counts on this roster. Moseley isn’t just fighting against the cornerbacks, he’s fighting against the entire 90 man roster just to make a spot.
Moseley is an intriguing option to have amongst the corners, even if he is still raw as a player. During his time in college, Moseley compiled over 140 tackles, to follow with 29 pass deflections and 2 interceptions. He projects to play the nickel cornerback position in this defense, although during his time in college he did flash playing almost every down. In his two preseason games, Moseley has 5 total tackles, with no pass breakups. Aside from that however, his overall play has significantly improved, a good sign if he wants to stick on the team.
Safety: Everybody outside of Tartt, Moore
Sorry I had to give in on this one. Outside of Jaquiski Tartt and Tarvarius Moore, every safety is fighting for a spot on the 53. Adrian Colbert, Antone Exum, Marcell Harris, and Jimmie Ward are all guys that have shown flashes throughout their time in the NFL.
Colbert had an outstanding rookie season that saw him as the next possible coming of Ronnie Lott. However, his sophomore season was a time to forget, as he looked nowhere near like the player he did his rookie season. Saleh and Co. are challenging Colbert to get back into the player he once was. However, will they give Colbert enough time to prove himself? Even if he does, he likely won’t be the starter behind either Tarvarious Moore or Jimmie Ward. Colbert does bring the thump and athleticism the safety unit could use. But will his athleticism get in the way of his football awareness again? So far in two preseason games, not only was he ejected in the first game for a questionable hit, he was also taken out of the second game with a hamstring injury.
That leads me to Ward. Going into his sixth season now on the 49ers, Ward has yet to show he can stay fully healthy since his 2015 season, although he started only 8 games. Saleh covets flexibility, which is Ward’s strong suit. He can play free safety, strong safety, nickel corner and outside corner. Although Ward can do it all, he’s tested the patience of this regime ever since Lynch and Co. came in. How much more time does Ward have until he’s cut? He’s likely one more big injury away from seeing his time done with the 49ers. However, he’s capable of being an average starter at least. He’s got the potential, but does he have the time? Ward has just recently began practicing.
Now to Antone Exum. Primarily a free safety last season filling in for the injured Adrian Colbert, he was capable, considering he’s been a career backup. Last season, Exum played in 15 games, starting 7 of them. He clearly impressed Saleh enough to warrant a spot on this roster still. However, he has to overcome the rest of the safeties if he wants to secure even a backup spot, and that alone is an uphill climb on its own. Again, Exum proved he can play admirably as a backup. However, Lynch and Co. may covet his younger safeties over Exum.
Finally, Marcell Harris. Harris, like Colbert, is one of the hardest hitting safeties on the 49ers’ roster. However, can he overcome his hard-hitting ability in exchange for better awareness? Last season, although he was a rookie, there were too many times where he bit on play-action passes, which allowed big yardage gains in return. Harris, who plays strong safety, might have a spot due to being the only other strong safety outside of Tartt. He could be a lock on the roster if Jimmie Ward isn’t ready by week 1. Aside from this, Harris still needs to prove that he can be (at the least) a semi-consistent safety who can read plays in front of him. Going into year two, he has a lot to prove if he wants to sniff backup playing time come regular season.
There are many choices to make, and with only two games left, time is running out for many players. With the guys that I’ve listed, every single snap matters. As the games go on, the backups may get more playing time than the others. Will that be the final signs of guys making the roster?