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Could 49ers rookie Ji’Ayir Brown push Tashaun Gipson for the starting safety job?

Rohan Chakravarthi
Jun 9, 2023 at 4:30 PM--

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The San Francisco 49ers found themselves in a unique predicament ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft, as they entered with no first or second-round selections.

Still, they were able to land a productive player with their first third-round pick, trading up 16 spots to take Penn State safety Ji'Ayir Brown, a player I was high on ahead of the draft.

Despite the good value of the selection, there were still questions surrounding his production in Year 1, given where he was taken and the presence of two highly productive incumbents at the position: Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga.

But, after initial reports have come out very positive for Brown, is there a chance for him to push Gipson for a starting role opposite of Hufanga in 2023?

Early reports

Gipson was a productive player for the 49ers in 2022, and specifically returned to the team to start alongside Hufanga in 2023 after pondering retirement. So, where is this narrative coming from?

It all began with wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who revealed that the rookie safety was already making his mark in organized team activities(OTAs), recording four interceptions and dropping a fifth during the short stretch of practices.

"He's done a great job," wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, Brown's locker neighbor, said last week. "He's got like three or four picks already through these first couple of days. And he just comes in, wants to work when the work comes in, doesn't say too much, just work. So I like him. I like him a lot."

"He had a couple of tip balls. I'm not sure," Aiyuk said when asked how those interceptions were achieved. "I was in one of the plays. I was in a few plays, actually, where he had a pick, so I don't remember what exactly it looked like. But a pick is a pick, so we want that regardless. I know a lot of people who leave picks out there, and he actually left one out there, so he might have even had five. But he's getting to the ball as a safety, so you love to see it."

Brown also received praise from defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks, who pointed out the safety's versatility and ball production, which should fit well into coordinator Steve Wilks' system.

"He has our DNA that we're looking for on defense," Bullocks said of Brown last Thursday, per The Athletic. "We're looking for a guy that's physical, that's smart, that can finish. When you look at Ji'Ayir, he's versatile. He can line up on all three levels of the defense. He can line up on the line of scrimmage. He can rush off the edge. He can drop back a level and play man coverage. He can play zone as well. And he can also drop back into the post and show that range and go get the football."

"When you look at a guy who has 10 career interceptions in college — usually, the guys who are always around the football are going to get the football," Bullocks said. "And it really doesn't stop when they get to the NFL. They're usually around the ball as well."

That led to speculation on whether the 49ers would implement three-safety sets, a look they've utilized with success in the past, more often in 2023, given the talent the team has at the position with Brown, Hufanga, and Gipson.

However, there are some potential concerns with the three-safety looks this season in comparison to previous years.

The problems

A significant portion of the success with three-safety looks when Jimmie Ward was on the team can be attributed to his versatility. The safety-turned-nickelback was stout in coverage, forceful in the run game, and had the athleticism to erase tight ends on any route.

With the current roster, there isn't necessarily that player that has proven to consistently play that "big nickel" role that Ward occupied for the 49ers over the last few seasons.

Gipson was in that position at times last season, but is better roaming the backend as a coverage safety, while Hufanga is more of a box defender rather than a "big nickel".

Meanwhile, Brown has the coverage ability to fit that role at times, but there are questions about his athleticism and long speed, which could be tested at the "big nickel" role.

Instead, the 49ers could look to implement three-safety sets in base packages, opting to utilize Hufanga in the box and take advantage of his instincts in the run game, while having Gipson and Brown serving as the safeties on the backend.

Another aspect to look at is the increased aggressiveness that will come with Steve Wilks as the defensive play-caller, which could put safeties in blitzing roles more often, providing more opportunities for the three-safety packages.

However, I have some doubts about utilizing one of the safeties in a "big nickel" role consistently, as the 49ers did in the past with Jimmie Ward, raising questions about how often the team can utilize that type of package

Starting role?

With the concerns listed above about three safety sets, the 49ers may choose to involve only two safeties on the field for most of their packages.

That leads to the overarching question: can Ji'Ayir Brown unseat Tashaun Gipson as a starting safety?

Gipson provided much more than the 49ers could have anticipated after San Francisco signed him late into the offseason to fill in for an injured Jimmie Ward, taking over the full-time role and being a productive starter alongside the emerging Hufanga.

However, Brown provides what the 49ers are looking for—ball production. His array of skills may be too much to keep him off the field.

While there likely will be a learning curve for the rookie safety, the 49ers could do a similar arrangement as they did with Hufanga in 2021: slowly incorporate Brown on the field as the season goes along to prepare him for a starting role in 2024.

Still, I wouldn't be surprised if Brown continues the youth movement for the 49ers and earns a starting role at some point during the 2023 season.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • BigAl
    Are you serious? Brown is already better than Gibson ever was. The real story is he will be better than Hufanga
    Jun 12, 2023 at 9:50 AM


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