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Isaiah Oliver analyzes Trey Lance, Sam Darnold, his fit in the 49ers defense

Jun 1, 2023 at 9:46 AM--

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New San Francisco 49ers cornerback Isaiah Oliver is coming from the Atlanta Falcons. While in the NFC South, he's faced quarterback Sam Darnold, now his teammate.

The 49ers are in their second week of organized team activities (OTAs), and Oliver has had a chance this offseason to get a good look at Darnold and third-year quarterback Trey Lance during practices. So what has he taken away from going against the two former No. 3 overall draft picks?

"I mean, they're both really good quarterbacks," Oliver told reporters on Wednesday. "Obviously, I've played against Sam a few times. I haven't played against Trey before, so just kind of seeing him [for the first time]. But yeah, they're both just real athletic guys. I feel like a lot of people don't respect that enough."

Even with two seasons under his belt, Lance lacks experience. He started two games during his rookie campaign, filling in for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo. He entered the 2022 season as the 49ers' starting quarterback but suffered a season-ending ankle injury during Week 2.

Darnold has significantly more experience, having started 55 career games. While he's failed to live up to his high draft status, the veteran quarterback has never had the level of talent around him that he will have with the 49ers.

Brock Purdy continues to rehab following surgery to repair the tear of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow, creating an offseason competition between Lance and Darnold. The team has confidence in both quarterbacks.

"But they can both throw really good balls, both throwing really good deep balls already this camp," Oliver continued. "Obviously, they're battling out, doing their thing, but so far, I think they're both really good quarterbacks."

Decision to join the 49ers

Oliver jumped at the chance to join San Francisco as a free agent. His Falcons beat the 49ers last season, but he witnessed firsthand how aggressive the defense played in that contest.

"Obviously, it's just been one of the best defenses in the NFL for the last however many years," Oliver said. "So just having that opportunity, I feel like a lot of guys will kind of take that opportunity if they have the chance to come here—defensive players, that is. And just being around a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches, I feel like it will just elevate my game that much more. So, I was excited for sure."

San Francisco's opponents were 0-15 last season in the week following their clashes with the 49ers. That certainly makes a lot of sense to Oliver. His Falcons lost to the Cincinnati Bengals the week after facing San Francisco's defense.

"Everyone knows that when the 49ers are coming in, or you're going in to play the 49ers, it's going to be a physical game," Oliver explained. "That's just the tone that's already set before the game even starts. That was the mindset the whole week. We knew if the Falcons were going to win that game, that we were going to have to be more physical than them.

"And that's kind of just the respect that I feel like the 49ers [have]. It comes with that logo on the helmet, really, just because of the way that we play football. So I think that's big. And obviously, if we look back at that Falcons game, yeah, we played well and we won, but the next week we were banged up bad. And then we went out there and lost a big one the week after that.

"And so that's kind of just how it goes playing against the 49ers. I mean, you know what it's going to be for four quarters. And then, can you do that for four quarters, and then can you come back and do it the next week? Which is pretty hard to do, I feel."

Stepping in at nickel

Can Oliver replace Jimmie Ward and the nickel cornerback spot? Ward departed for the Houston Texans, prompting the 49ers to sign Oliver in free agency. It says a lot that Falcons fans were disappointed to see Oliver depart for another team.

There has been literal growth at the 49ers' nickel spot. San Francisco's former nickelback, K'Waun Williams, was 5-9. Ward, the 5-11 safety, manned the spot last season after Williams' departure.

Oliver is 6-0, and feels his size will benefit his role with the 49ers.

"For me, the nickel position, you're asked to do a lot of things, whether that's covering, being in the run game," Oliver said. "So that's kind of what I've learned over the last few years. And then, just being bigger, being able to take on blocks, being able to fit inside into B gaps and stuff like that, and make those kind of tackles, I feel like helps my game as a nickel a lot, for sure."

Oliver's new defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks, is very familiar with the cornerback and pushed to bring him to the 49ers.

"Oliver is someone that I had an opportunity to go against, having been in that division," Wilks shared last month. "And we didn't know exactly what was going to happen in free agency with Jimmie. And when [he didn't stay], we wanted to make sure that we sort of got the best nickel in free agency, and that's what we went out and did.

"So I'm excited about Oliver. He's long, he's physical, can tackle, can cover. He's going to be a good blitzer for us, everything that we do within this defense."


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