Rookies in the National Football League have a tough job — not only are they being tested physically for stamina and performance in front of millions of viewers, they are simultaneously experiencing the rigors of a 17-week season. Many of those weeks are spent on the road, away from surroundings that were just starting to feel familiar, in front of hostile crowds and critical local reporters. It’s definitely not a glamorous lifestyle, Hollywood feature films notwithstanding.
However 49ers rookie free safety Adrian Colbert has been one of those brave souls who undertook that journey this season, and I think he’ll reap some serious career rewards.
Colbert is a Texas native. He had an especially difficult childhood: he grew up separated from his mother, and his dad was in a local gang. At the young age of 9, Colbert was hit by a car while riding his bike, and he stayed in a coma for a week. Perhaps coincidentally, his father quit the gang the following year. As a junior at Mineral Wells High School in Wichita Falls, Colbert won the Texas 400 meter track title as a high school junior; he then spent 3 years at the University of Texas (where he played safety in a single-high formation, a formation Kyle Shanahan is known to use) and one year at the University of Miami.
Colbert came to the 49ers in the 7th round of the draft this past year; he joined his cousin, wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, in Santa Clara. He is currently signed with the club until 2021.
So you may be asking yourself, ‘why is Colbert worthy of attention?’ Well, to put it simply — because the guy is going to be a critical building block in the San Francisco secondary — and that is an area where the team is in some extreme need. Let me break it down for you, Faithful…
Colbert is a monster hitter. Anyone who gets in Colbert’s way will swiftly be put on his hiney. Ask Los Angeles Chargers running back Kenjon Barner, whom Colbert forced a fumble from with an emphatic hit in the last preseason game.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) September 1, 2017
Or ask New York Giant Tavarres King, who was drilled by Colbert after (sort of) catching an Eli Manning pass in the third quarter in Week 10. It was the play of the game in the eyes of many observers, and Colbert was understandably thrilled (though he might well have gotten an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty had Eric Reid not shoved Colbert away from King before the smack talking began). Not all of his 17 tackles so far this season have been that dramatic, but they have been impressive and they’ve helped to keep games close.
— Luke (@__Neutralizer) November 14, 2017
Colbert is tough as nails. Not only did he play through injuries as a college senior, Colbert has dealt with hamstring issues this season — and he hasn’t let them keep him down. In fact, Colbert played almost the entire game against New York with a broken thumb, one that required surgery during the bye week. If it gave him any trouble or slowed him down in even the slightest way, I missed it. It’s common sense that he will not start this week against Seattle, since there’s no reason to endanger that newly-repaired thumb, but he will be back in a couple of weeks with a vengeance.
Colbert was born ready to play. Okay, that is probably hyperbole on my part, but his preparedness can’t be questioned. Colbert was forced into action after starters Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt each broke their arms, and he looked as natural at free safety as they did — and that’s after he was originally slated to be a cornerback in this Robert Saleh-coached defense. When Tartt went down against the Cardinals in Week 8, Colbert knew exactly what Carson Palmer’s passing scheme would be, and he read the go routes Palmer was calling like a veteran.
Saleh himself has said that Colbert is:
“Relentless in his work ethic and his preparation … Every play, every rep, every meeting is very, very important. He’s very into it. He has something to prove for sure.”
Colbert has speed, and he has range. He’s not as fast as his cousin Goodwin, but a 4.25 40-yard dash isn’t anything to sneeze at. And the phrases that have been used to describe Colbert’s play — “red-line,” “sideline-to-sideline,” “flying all over the field,” to name a few — show that he can overcome any doubts that linger about his overall strength. Colbert can also break up passes in the deep middle and at the goal line, as he showed against the Giants and other teams. The guy isn’t a massive specimen (6’2”, 200 lbs), but he can smoke receivers who can’t move quickly or deviously.
Colbert has been mentioned as a prominent part of the team’s future. True, a ton of current Niners can say the same thing in a rebuild year. But how many can claim praise like this from a general manager?
“[Colbert] displayed some things in that game that are characteristic of a starter and a big time starter…we really think highly of Jimmie Ward but if Adrian keeps playing like that, you keep putting efforts out like that, you find your way (into the lineup). Shoot, if he keeps playing like he did last week, you consider a lot of things.”
What does Colbert need to work on? He has to get his mental speed on the field to the point where he can do the same decoding job with every enemy quarterback that he did with Manning and Palmer. That will take time and experience, of course, but it won’t take a complete makeover — we’re not talking about turning lead into gold, or water into wine, or Trent Brown into a wide receiver (no offense, big guy).
Colbert has the work ethic and all the other elements that are needed to be, as Saleh has said, “a professional safety” instead of just a rookie safety. He just needs to graduate from being a rookie in terms of time, because he’s already done it in terms of everything else.
Paging Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett: You’re about to collide with an irresistible force this Sunday at Levi’s, and it ain’t gonna be pretty. Go get ‘em, Adrian.