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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers mailbag: What is Brandon Staley’s role with the defense? Will SF add a starting safety? Thoughts on new hip-drop tackle rule?

Marc Adams
Mar 27, 2024 at 8:48 AM--

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San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan spoke with reporters on Tuesday at the NFL meetings in Orlando. He addressed multiple topics, from coaching moves, to new rules, to free agency additions and losses. On Monday, GM John Lynch met with the media and answered questions himself. So they have given us some things to discuss during the offseason.

We opened the 49ers Webzone Mailbag this week to answer your questions. Some were related to the topics Shanahan and Lynch discussed. Others were not. Let's jump in and see what is on your mind.

Do the 49ers add a starting safety? Who would be the best fit, and is Talanoa Hufanga's job safe? - Dave B.

It wouldn't surprise me if the 49ers added another safety in free agency. In fact, I'd say it's likely. Will it be one of the bigger names like Justin Simmons or Julian Blackmon? I tend to think not.

The team hopes Talanoa Hufanga, who suffered an ACL injury on November 12, will be ready to go by training camp. If the 49ers add a starting safety, it will likely be a temporary fix until Hufanga can return. I haven't heard anything that leads me to believe the 49ers have soured on Hufanga. There was a report that he isn't guaranteed his starting spot when he returns, but you can say that about a lot of players. Even though Hufanga has some aspects to his game that need to be improved, he's still a playmaker that the 49ers like.

Now, if you ask me this question a year from now when the team is trying to figure out how to handle the salary cap, I might answer this question differently. But for 2024, I would say Hufanga's job is safe.

Has Kyle Shanahan said what role Brandon Staley will have? Will Nick Sorensen be the DC? Or will Staley take over? - Wes B.

Shanahan addressed this topic on Tuesday. He confirmed that new 49ers defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen will call plays and that Brandon Staley will be a big part of game planning. "Brandon will be a big part of the game plans, implementing a lot of our defense here in the offseason and during each week," Shanahan said. "He's been a big part of free agency, helped us with the draft and he'll be a huge asset to the whole coaching staff."

Shanahan mentioned that Staley has been a big part of free agency. The 49ers have signed a few players who have been with Staley in seasons past, so it appears to be true that the 49ers' new assistant coach has had some influence in free agency so far.

As for Sorensen, Shanahan said, "I just love where he's at from a football mind. Our players love him. He's been talking to our team every Thursday, doing the ball meetings. Our players are used to him and it's a great opportunity for him. We're happy to put him in this position.

"I've been with him the last two years, mainly. When you're with somebody, it's not really an interview that changes it. It's being with somebody in the building every day. I thought he was close last year to being ready, and I think he's even more ready now."

Who was your most underrated free agent signing for the 49ers? - Davey B.

I'll give you my three most underrated offseason moves, in order:

  1. DE Yetur Gross-Matos. I like that Lynch compared this signing to others the 49ers have had, like Charles Omenihu. Lynch also said that when the 49ers signed Gross-Matos, other teams reached out and said they were hoping to land the defensive end, who can also slide inside and play defensive tackle. That told me he was a player with much upside since several other teams were coming after him.
  2. DT Maliek Collins. He's not as good as Arik Armstead, but he plays more, which was certainly a theme during free agency. The 49ers signed players who don't miss games. As a pass rusher, Collins is just as good as Armstead. His run defense is the part of his game that isn't as good as Armstead's. But the 49ers also signed Jordan Elliott, a starter-level defensive tackle. He will be a backup and is good against the run, so it will be interesting to see how they play that. Maybe I should have included Elliott, but I didn't. I instead chose the cornerback they signed.
  3. CB Isaac Yiadom. Shanahan said Yiadom has a chance to be the outside corner opposite Charvarius Ward, which would leave Deommodore Lenoir inside. Yiadom started eight games for the Saints in 2023. He was impressive, playing well in the last half of the season. He also had 14 passes defended. If he plays like that for the 49ers, this secondary will no longer be considered a weakness. And best of all, he'd keep Ambry Thomas off the field.

Week one, opening drive. Who's on the 49ers starting offensive line? - Chris W.

The 49ers starting offensive line in week one will be the same as it was to start the Super Bowl, barring injury. LT Trent Williams, LG Aaron Banks, C Jake Brendel, RG Jon Feliciano, and RT Colton McKivitz.

Even if the 49ers draft a right tackle of the future and a center who could eventually beat out Brendel, I doubt either of those players will unseat the starter in week one. Especially when you consider Shanahan's reluctance to play rookies. This is more true at center than at right tackle. Shanahan puts a lot on his center, so it will be hard for a rookie center to play in his first season.

Your thoughts on the new hip-drop tackle rule? - Bryant C.

I don't like it. And it seems like the players don't either. There will be too many penalties called on plays that are essentially normal tackles. How is a smaller defensive back going to bring down a big tight end, for example? You can't go at the head. You can go for their knees. Sometimes, in the process of making a tackle, players come down strangely and injuries occur. I don't see how this rule will make things better. 49ers defensive tackle, Javon Hargrave, seems to agree.

In your opinion, how big of a problem has the NFL owners created with the ban and personal foul penalty on hip-drop tackles? - Ed H.

The owners make a lot of rule changes that appear to be overreactions or money-related. This new rule certainly fits the overreaction narrative. It will be interesting to see how the new kickoff rule goes over, but the hip-drop tackle rule is a bad one. All you have to do is look at what players (and former players) are saying about the new rule.

Former Houston Texans star defensive tackle, J.J. Watt:
"Just fast forward to the belts with flags on them."

Former defensive player, Chris Long:
"I made a lot of tackles that will be flagged going forward and usually on accident. Closing full speed from the side is tough. You can be out of control and physics dictate it.."

Former 49ers cornerback, Richard Sherman (responding to a post by former QB Robert Griffin III):
"He's not. He's just supposed to let them score and cost his team. They are taking the defensive players' money. All these fines for defensive players doing their job. They could not coach him on how to get a 270lbs TE down while running. Smh."

Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, Dez Bryant:
"idk what to say about this one…this is insane!"

Former QB, Sean Salisbury:
"Next up on the NFL rules changes: 1) Defenses have to play pattycake with the ball carrier before they tackle him. 2) Defenses have to count to Five Alligators before they rush the passer. NFL Defenses continue to get hosed. Gimmicks galore."

I'm sure current players are speaking out, I just haven't seen those quotes yet.

Ask Shanahan why didn't he run the ball more in the 3rd quarter of the Super Bowl. Which Super Bowl, you ask? Pick one! - Brian L.

The 49ers indeed ran the ball only four times in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, compared to 10 passes. Some of those passes were when there were penalties that backed the team up. So perhaps Shanahan would have called more run plays if not for the penalties.

I don't get the opportunity to ask Shanahan any questions, but if I did, I doubt I would ask him why he didn't run the ball more in the third quarter of the Super Bowl. I may wonder that on my own. I may even write about it: Why didn't Christian McCaffrey run the ball more in Super Bowl LVIII? Why didn't Raheem Mostert run the ball more in Super Bowl LIV? Why didn't Frank Gore get the ball with the game on the line in Super Bowl XLVII?

I'd like to know those questions, but I don't think I would ask Shanahan (or Jim Harbaugh) about it, simply because any time a team loses, there are so many instances where you can second-guess decisions or play calls. Why didn't Pete Carroll make sure Marshawn Lynch was getting the ball in the closing moments of Super Bowl XLIX, with the ball at the one-yard line? That call cost the Seahawks the game. I'm not sure Shanahan's lack of third-quarter running cost the 49ers either Super Bowl. But it didn't help.

Of all the alum sons who are in the draft, who would you want on the Niners roster and why? - Sasha R.

Sasha is, of course, speaking about the players available in the NFL draft who have fathers who played for the 49ers. Let's see if you can guess those players and their famous dads:

  • WR Brenden Rice- His father is some guy named Jerry. Perhaps you've heard of him.
  • RB Frank Gore, Jr.- This is an easy one. They have the same name.
  • WR Luke McCaffrey- Not only did his dad, Ed, win a Super Bowl with the 49ers, but his brother, Christian, currently plays for the 49ers. But you already knew that.
  • WR Terique Owens- His famous dad, Terrell, once stood on the Cowboys logo (twice) in one game. He was also credited with the phrase, "I love me some me."

Let's be honest. Neither Rice, Owens, nor Gore, Jr. will be as great as their Hall of Fame fathers. And no one should expect them to be. McCaffrey won't be the player his brother is, and he likely won't win three Super Bowls, as his dad did. But all four players have a chance to make a career for themselves.

I think if I had to pick one, it would be Gore, Jr. He's not as strong as his father, but he is quicker and faster. He would be a good change of pace for the 49ers and should fit well into their offense. But I would be happy with any of them.

It would be fun to see the McCaffrey brothers play together, but what if the younger brother doesn't make the team? Of course, I'd love to see another wide receiver named Rice on the team. But what if he ends up in Shanahan's doghouse, while his legendary father is roaming the sidelines before home games? Can you imagine if the 49ers were to cut Owens? What kind of rant would his dad go on? And Gore, Jr's. dad works for the 49ers. Could that get awkward if he's not playing as much as his Hall of Fame father thinks he should?

In the end, I doubt these issues will matter. The 49ers will draft one of them if they believe they will make the team better. And they'll play them accordingly. It would make a great story regardless.

That's all we have this week. We'll be back with another edition of the 49ers Webzone Mailbag in a few weeks.
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.
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