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49ers praise Ji’Ayir Brown’s journey from draft to starting lineup

Dec 1, 2023 at 9:50 AM--

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The San Francisco 49ers are still exploring their safety options due to injuries to Talanoa Hufanga and George Odum. Tayler Hawkins is on the practice squad, and the team has added veteran Erik Harris. General manager John Lynch admits that there aren't many outside options at this point in the season.

The silver lining is the depth added through the draft, with Ji'Ayir Brown selected from Penn State in the third round. Brown made a notable debut against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, stepping in for Hufanga, and made his first start against the Seattle Seahawks last week.

The rookie's impressive performance has not gone unnoticed, earning a 76.8 overall Pro Football Focus grade against the Buccaneers and a 73.9 grade on Thanksgiving night. The 49ers are optimistic about Brown's continued growth throughout the season, believing the 23-year-old benefited from not immediately stepping into a major role.

"Yeah, we liked him a lot," Lynch told KNBR's Markus Boucher and Dieter Kurtenbach on Friday morning. "I thought it was a perfect situation, actually, to come into because we had Tashaun Gipson, we had Talanoa, both excellent players. Talanoa is not where Gip is in terms of years in service, but played very much like a veteran.

"So we thought it was a perfect environment for him to come in. But I really got to commend Ji'Ayir because we're always trying to draft not only great athletes but competitive players, and his spirit is in large part why we drafted him. [He just] had this competitiveness that you could feel oozing out of his skin when we met with him at the combine, when we met with him at his school."

Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks also expresses confidence in Brown's play while filling in for Hufanga, crediting the supporting cast around him.

"I felt confident with Gipson back there, along with [LB] Fred [Warner] and the guys that we surrounded him with, that he was going to do well," Wilks said on Thursday. "He's doing a great job with his communication. We saw that yesterday in practice, just being assertive in certain things on the backend. I feel very confident when I can hear and see that."

Brown sought to get onto the football field as quickly as possible, using the frustration of being held back to his advantage. Rather than succumbing to the disappointment of not playing immediately, the first-year safety bided his time on special teams, worked hard, and studied to prepare for his opportunity.

"And I think Ji'Ayir, as well as anyone, took the frustration with not playing, not being a part of it, number one, performed very well on special teams," Lynch said. "Number two, [he] found a way to know his job such that when given the opportunity, he was going to shine, and I think he did just that. And so really proud of him."

Lynch, having witnessed the young ball hawk dominate at Lackawanna Junior College before doing the same at Penn State, was not surprised by Brown stepping in and playing at a high level.

Brown faces his biggest challenge this week with the 49ers defense set to face one of the best-scoring offenses in the NFL. The Eagles are averaging 28.2 points per game this season, tying them with the 49ers for the third most in the league.

Lynch expressed pride in Brown's performance, saying, "So every week's a challenge. He's got to be up to it. There'll be challenges this week in what Philly presents, but real proud of Ji'Ayir with the way he stepped into tough shoes to fill with Talanoa being out."

You can listen to the entire conversation with Lynch below.

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