So far this offseason, a huge amount of discussion has centred around the competitions brewing along the defensive line, at linebacker, at running back and at tight end in Santa Clara. The discussion has, on occasion, drifted onto the corners where relative veterans Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser battle it out with rookie Ahkello Witherspoon for the right to play opposite second-year stud Rashard Robinson.
Nevertheless, not enough has been written about the competition for playing time across the defensive backfield. Excitingly for 49ers fans, in addition to competition, there is a proliferation of different but complimentary skill sets that can be utilised to give the 49ers the best opportunity to win match ups on a weekly and play-by-play basis. Before we talk about the players themselves however, we must discuss what kind of roles the players will likely be asked to occupy.
The principles of the scheme
The 49ers’ defensive scheme against the pass will largely operate from a press coverage, cover 3 zone, base. This means that there will be three players deep – the free safety in the deep centre field and the two outside corners patrolling the sidelines deep down field.
Depending on the package the 49ers are in, the intermediate and short areas of the field will be the responsibilities of the linebackers, strong safety, slot corner(s) and third safety (in three safety packages).
Nevertheless, teams operating from a cover 3 base have been utilising man coverage more frequently, which places greater demands on the defensive players. This move should not however daunt 49ers fans, as the team certainly has the personnel to be able to run cover 3 zone/cover 1 man defense effectively.
Against the run, it is a one gap system, so players will have a clear role and responsibility to fulfil. Defensive backs largely have outside contain responsibilities.
Outside corners – most likely playing press coverage, these two players will be responsible for the deep outside thirds of the field in zone or defending man to man against the outside receivers. Will also have outside contain responsibilities against the run so will have to be willing to mix it up.
Slot corners – the technique played by the slot corner will vary, but in zone they will tend to be responsible for the short to intermediate outside thirds. In man coverage they will likely match up against slot receivers. They will also be required to take an active role in run defense and be blitzing threats.
Free safety – in zone and in most man coverage looks (except 0 blitzes), the free safety will be responsible for patrolling the deep middle third. The 49ers have referred to the position as an “eraser” as they are supposed to prevent big plays in both the passing and running games.
Strong safety – in zone coverage they will fulfil a similar role to the slot corners, but in man coverage they are more likely to cover tight ends man to man or play a “robber” role covering the short/intermediate middle of the field as one of two zone coverage defenders (along with the free safety). Has a major role to play in the running game, creating an 8 man box and has either a contain responsibility or greater freedom to come up quickly and attempt to get through unblocked into the backfield. Will need to carry a blitzing threat.
Third safety – something that has been alluded to by Robert Saleh is the use of three safety looks, likely motivated by the presence of Jaquiski Tartt. Will likely replace the WILL linebacker and have the same responsibilities as that player or a strong safety depending on where he aligns. Coverage responsibilities likely encompass short to intermediate zones and man coverage on tight ends, running backs or receivers. In the run game, if lining up in the WILL linebacker spot he will be expected to penetrate and get into the backfield, ideally unblocked. Will otherwise have similar responsibilities to the strong safety regarding run defense and blitzing.
How the players can be utilised
Eric Reid – currently the front runner for the strong safety role and coaches rave about his smarts. Better against the run than against the pass but has the athleticism (though has not shown the ability anywhere near consistently enough) to cover wide receivers, tight ends and running backs man to man. Good in zone coverage, particularly closer to the line of scrimmage and arrives with bad intentions. Talk about his reduced hitting since his concussions appears increasingly misguided and Reid has bulked up to 220lbs for his new role.
He could be hugely effective as the robber in cover 1 and in cover 3 zone looks as well as generally doing well in the short to intermediate areas of the field. Has some abilities as a rusher.
Jimmie Ward – the front runner and nigh-on certainty to open the season as the starting free safety. Has a lack of experience at the position but is an excellent coverage player with highly consistent tackling ability. He invariably finds a way to play the ball when it’s in the air in his vicinity, which is going to be a massive help as the “eraser”.
Could also be used out of the slot where he has had considerable experience since coming into the league, giving him a Tyrann Mathieu-esque Swiss Army knife role. Nevertheless, the new regime is likely to persevere with him as a deep centre fielder exclusively for now, where he will be heavily reliant on his natural abilities. There will be likely be some growing pains but I expect Ward to do very well.
Rashard Robinson – showed significant development through his rookie season, demonstrated by his status as the undisputed number one corner after the cutting of Tramaine Brock. A lot has been made of his attitude and competitiveness, producing an abrasiveness widely associated with success in this scheme.
Far more importantly, Robinson has shown himself to be capable of matching up with some of the best receivers in the NFL man to man, utilising his length to press them from the get-go and then combines this length with athleticism to stay with them throughout their route. Better outside than inside but could travel with the opposition’s number one receiver. Zone coverage skills also came on a lot in season, and he demonstrated a desire to get after the football when facing the QB. A surprisingly effective and willing tackler given his lack of bulk, though he has added around 20lbs since coming into the league.
Robinson could legitimately make the leap into the top tier of NFL corners in year two and be someone opposition co-ordinators need to scheme to avoid.
Jaquiski Tartt – described by Robert Saleh (despite Saleh’s best efforts) as a “tweener” and his athletic abilities were noted. Unclear to what extent this is a linebacker-safety tweener (thus a fairly ideal candidate to play either strong or third safety in this scheme) or actually a strong safety-free safety tweener (which in this scheme is more of a gap than linebacker-strong safety). Either way, Tartt brings a fairly unique skill set that differentiates him from Reid and Tartt’s best games last year were undoubtedly better than Reid’s.
Reid appears to read the game better, but Tartt is better in coverage, especially as a press cover defender. Tartt also has a better feel as a blitzer and appears to be fixing his tackle missing issues (had the third most tackles without a miss on special teams last season in the NFL per PFF). If those issues do resolve themselves, he could really challenge Reid for the starting strong safety role and he also has the athleticism to play the free safety role.
The latter role would, in my opinion, be a step too far at this stage however. In year one under Saleh, he should be offered the chance to displace Reid and be utilised as the third safety/WILL linebacker or on occasion as a corner (slot or inside) against bigger bodied receivers and tight ends. Best case scenario, Tartt is the 49ers’ Swiss Army Knife, but should be handled carefully so as not to place too much on his plate, especially early on.
Ahkello Witherspoon – the 6”3 rookie was drafted by the 49ers because of his apparent fit in their defense. He will have to outplay Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson to get the chance to start and is likely to exclusively be an outside corner in year one. Has the length to press off the line, tremendous athleticism and an ability to make plays on the ball even if he looks beaten. People have raved about his footwork, reflected in his man coverage capabilities which could be crucial as the cover 3 zone base defenses increasingly employ cover 1 man. Is also a solid zone corner. Has already started seeing first and second string snaps in camp. Does have to improve against the run, where he looked incredibly timid in college at times.
Keith Reaser – every year in the offseason, Reaser impresses and appears primed for a breakout season. He has solid athleticism and a feisty temperament, almost making one of the interceptions of the season in 2016. Appears equally well suited inside and outside but at the moment is a part of the competition to play opposite Rashard Robinson. His versatility to play outside and inside means that he has a good chance of sticking on the roster but he could wind up being cut.
Dontae Johnson – another tall corner who appears to be a very good physical fit for the 49ers’ new defensive scheme. Long and with a willingness to come up and play the run, Johnson is also reasonably effective in press coverage and is good in zone. So far in his career however, he has struggled somewhat in man coverage. This is potentially a product of being asked to play inside and outside when he is likely better suited as a boundary corner at the NFL level, though he undoubtedly has considerable versatility and has been touted by some as a possible option at free safety.
Has the opportunity to carve himself out a starting gig but could also wind up off the roster if other players impress. If Witherspoon is slow to adjust, Johnson is far more likely to make the roster due to his size and physical fit in the scheme which also provide him with an ability to cover taller receivers that is largely unmatched on this roster.
K’waun Williams – before getting injured, and then cut, by the Cleveland Browns, Williams was one of the best slot corners in the NFL. In the two seasons that he has played in the NFL (he missed his third year through injury), Williams was one of just eight players to allow fewer than 1.0 yards per cover snap among cornerbacks with 200 or more snaps in as a slot corner, per PFF. In addition to his abilities in coverage, Williams shows up as a blitzer which will be a very useful trait for the 49ers in their new scheme. Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley has a long history with Williams, having recruited him out of high school, coached him at Pitt and coached him at the Browns for two years. If he can return to his pre-injury form, Williams is likely the best pure slot corner that the 49ers have.
Will Redmond – one of Trent Baalke’s All-ACL team, Redmond was expected to contribute in the slot as a rookie but was placed on IR and didn’t see the field in the regular season. Pigeon-holing Redmond as exclusively a slot corner would be wrong, as he was the number one guy at Mississippi State and fits the 49ers’ press coverage scheme well with solid press technique. A better man corner than zone corner, which could help him if the 49ers follow the trend of playing a fair amount cover 1 man. Has solid ball skills.
He isn’t a tremendous tackler but is willing to get involved. In camp he has been working as the number two nickel corner but has taken first team snaps due to Williams getting hurt. His battle with Williams could depend a lot on Rashard Robinson’s development – if the 49ers decide that they want Robinson to travel with the opposition’s number one receiver, including inside, Redmond is likely the more attractive option as he is probably a better outside corner than Williams. Fundamentally well suited to the new scheme.
Prince Charles Iworah – A seventh round draft pick last season, Iworah’s most attractive traits were his athleticism and size. Though not enough to get him onto the 53, he was a practice squad player last season and has another opportunity to crack the 53 in year two. He has reportedly taken some snaps with the second string as a result of injuries ahead of him but he will face considerable competition from this regime’s bottom-end-of-the-depth-chart pickups, Adrian Colbert and Zach Franklin, to make the regular season roster. Athleticism and size make him an attractive option on special teams.
Will Davis – Signed from the Baltimore Ravens, Davis is an intriguing option for the 49ers at corner. He has decent size at 5”11 and 180lbs and was used as a boundary corner in Baltimore. In very limited snaps, he graded positively per PFF, with a 76.4 rating in 2015 and 70.4 last season. Not really a press guy but could be a decent short term boundary corner option whilst Witherspoon adjusts. He has however torn his ACL twice.
Vinnie Sunseri – Got some snaps last year as a dime-backer but has been lining up as a free safety this offseason. Solid on special teams and a good tackler, Sunseri undoubtedly faces an uphill struggle to make the roster but clearly has attractive versatility. Could play strong safety, third safety, free safety or WILL linebacker if required but there are other players for those roles.
Adrian Colbert – Converted from safety to corner as a senior at Miami and combines excellent size and measurables with rawness at the cornerback position. Is working as an outside corner at the moment, but can cover safety if required. His hitting ability combined with his athletic traits make him a potential special teams stud.
Zach Franklin – Describes his playing style as like Revis in his prime – patient at the line of scrimmage and a willing presser with the ability to stay with receivers through their routes. The UDFA certainly sets the bar high for himself but he has good size and appears to fit as an outside corner. Will likely have issues forcing his way onto the 53 however, with a number of experienced players above him on the depth chart. Will need to perform extremely well in training camp and preseason to get a look in. Nevertheless he has a solid opportunity as essentially all the cornerback spots except number one are undecided; if he shows special teams ability and some upside, he could sneak onto the roster.
Lorenzo Jerome – One of the most exciting UDFA pick ups for the 49ers, Jerome brings tremendous instincts and ball skills to the 49ers DB room. He appears an excellent fit as the deep centre field safety but there are question marks about whether he has the athleticism to translate to the NFL or indeed that his instincts will hold up on Sundays. He did apparently lead the 49ers in interceptions in OTAs, and whilst that comes with various caveats it is a continuation of a trend that has seen Jerome raise his levels throughout his career so far. If he can play deep centre field, that offers the chance for the 49ers to move Jimmie Ward to the slot regularly, where he has excelled in the past, which would arguably upgrade their defense.
Jerome has also been used as a slot corner in camp, demonstrating his versatility which further increases his attractiveness to the decision makers. Very capable in run support and his tackling abilities will stand him in good stead as a special teams player.
Chancellor James – Was an under the radar pickup as a result of Jerome’s signing, though James has also had an effective offseason to date, including a pick-6 during minicamp. James has excellent size but finds himself in the difficult position of being behind both Reid and Tartt at strong safety. Is certainly a practice squad candidate however.
Don Jones – Essentially signed as a special teams stud, Jones has been getting some snaps as the third team safety. He is unlikely to make the 53 unless he performs excellently on special teams, and will find himself pushed hard by the likes of Sunseri, Jerome, James and Franklin who could offer similar special teams abilities and offer much more upside as cornerbacks or safeties if they were to see the field.
Rashard Robinson is potentially the 49ers’ best defensive back and his development could have significant impact on the rest of the defensive backs – particularly the third corner who could be a pure slot guy or more of a versatile option depending on whether Robinson travels with the number one receiver.
There will be a considerable competition across from Robinson as Witherspoon, Johnson and Reaser vie for the right to be the 49ers’ number two corner. Their differing skill sets could see this be a weekly battle in season as well as being dependent on the opposition’s personnel and tendencies. Reaser could also find himself partaking in the battle to be the slot corner, where, like Redmond, his abilities to play outside and inside might see him jump ahead of Williams if Robinson travels both inside and outside.
At safety, there will be a battle between Jaquiski Tartt and Eric Reid but they also have complimentary skill sets that, combined with apparent coverage deficiencies at linebacker, could see them utilised at the same time. If Lorenzo Jerome makes the 53, he could also allow Jimmie Ward some positional flexibility and thus add even more flexibility to the 49ers’ defensive backs.
Furthermore, all of the defensive backs listed have the opportunity to make the roster, given that outside of Ward, Reid, Robinson, Witherspoon and probably Tartt, no one else’s position on the roster is secure. Special teams ability will undoubtedly be key, but effective special teams play coupled with greater potential upside on defense could see the likes of Zach Franklin and Lorenzo Jerome play their way onto the roster as well.
Fundamentally, despite the youthfulness across the position group, the 49ers’ defensive backs offer the team the opportunity to negate a variety of threats and weaknesses, as well as tweak their approach on a regular basis.
A good potential example would be how the defensive backs might be used against the Titans when the sides meet this season. The 49ers can utilise three safeties and two corners in their nickel packages against the Titans’ multiple tight end sets, but can also utilise regular nickel packages or dime packages against the Titans’ passing looks. Robinson could track Corey Davis, Jaquiski Tartt could follow Delanie Walker around the formation and someone like Lorenzo Jerome could even play slot corner if required to reduce the threat of Derrick Henry or Demarco Murray. There are numerous possibilities.