The 49ers defense was historically bad in 2016, setting franchise marks for futility in Jim O'Neil's complicated scheme. The unit was particularly bad against the run, finishing last in the league in rushing yards per game and rushing yards per carry. In one year, the 49ers' new defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, turned the unit around. Installing a comparatively simple 4-3 under scheme (created by George Seifert and Pete Carroll and successfully implemented in Seattle, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and San Diego) allowed the defense to play faster, with clearer reads. Saleh advertised before the 2017 season that the 49ers would improve against the run, and they certainly did.

Unfortunately, the 49ers continued to struggle in coverage, particularly outside of the numbers. While Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert emerged as dynamic, hard-hitting safeties with the potential to emerge as playmakers, the cornerback position persisted as an issue. Although Akhello Witherspoon seemed to improve consistently from game-to-game as a boundary corner and K'Waun Williams was consistently assignment-sound at nickel corner, the spot opposite of Witherspoon was a problem area all season. The 49ers acquired Richard Sherman in free agency to address that position, but he has not yet been cleared to practice. Sherman's status and the lack of depth at cornerback on the 49ers roster has led many to speculate that cornerback should feature prominently in the 49ers' draft plans.

In the first part of this three-part series, we looked at prospects who play offense that the 49ers might consider with the ninth-overall pick. Today, we will look at defensive back prospects who have been connected to the 49ers in the first round.

DENZEL WARD


Due to the 49ers' struggles at corner and this prospect's tremendous coverage ability, Denzel Ward has been mocked to the team frequently throughout the offseason. Without question, Ward is a superb cover corner. He displays tremendous footwork, balance, and speed, and he is rarely out of position on a throw. He is a willing contributor in run support, and he displays physical hand work to harass receivers throughout their routes.


One concern regarding Ward, which should be of minimal concern to 49ers fans, is that he only started one year for Ohio State. In 2016, he averaged about 30 snaps a game while stuck behind two first-round draft picks (Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley). In his limited snaps, he still tied Lattimore (who went on to become the 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year) with nine pass breakups, which led the team. Like Ward, Lattimore only started for one complete season with the Buckeyes, but he still found immediate success in the NFL. Ohio State is quickly establishing a reputation as a defensive back factory, and the practice competition that establishes the starting defensive backfield for the Buckeyes seems like a crucible that prepares them to excel as professionals.

Other concerns are harder to shake. One general red flag is that Ward only produced two interceptions in his entire college career. Having collected two dozen pass breakups in that time, it would be reasonable to expect Ward to convert more of those breakups into interceptions. While he doesn't appear to have any glaring weaknesses in his ball skills, he may simply choose the cautious breakup over the game-changing (but slightly more risky) interception. Regardless, many NFL decision-makers would prefer that a top ten defensive back provide more takeaways in college to project as a defensive star as a pro.

As a fit within the 49ers defense, Ward's size presents an additional concern. Standing five feet, eleven inches and weighing 183 pounds, with 31-inch arms, Ward is three inches shorter and 15-20 pounds lighter than the ideal size for cornerbacks in the 49ers' scheme, and he possesses arms that are one inch shorter than the widely accepted cutoff. While his size hasn't prevented him from consistently applying impressively tight coverage, his stature does show up on film. He occasionally fails to get his hands on passes thrown high and away from him, even when he is in perfect position to make a play. Larger receivers can bully him in coverage, as they can simply muscle free from him at the top of the route stem, gaining separation by simply shoving him in the opposite direction of their break. In my opinion, Ward will make a terrific cover corner in the NFL, but he doesn't provide the imposing presence or dominant physical play that the 49ers look for at the position.

MINKAH FITZPATRICK


In Alabama, they call Minkah Fitzpatrick Nick Saban's son. The line is that he's the only player who has ever logged more film hours in a season than Saban (I don't know if that is true). His preparation and on-field intuition are special, and his flexibility to play any position in the defensive backfield is remarkable. While his versatility is impressive, I believe that the 49ers will project him as a free safety. Fitzpatrick displays great instincts, tremendous intensity, impressive athletic traits, and undeniable leadership. His love for the game has undoubtedly already made an impression on John Lynch.


While Fitzpatrick is capable of playing any position in the defensive backfield, I see his best fit at free safety, where he can use his instincts and athleticism to patrol the deep middle third of the backfield, while using his intelligence and leadership to adjust coverage and run the back end of the defense. He is also disruptive as a blitzer and reliable in run support.


While the 49ers may have a significant need at cornerback, I don't think Fitzpatrick projects well as a corner in this scheme. Although his hips don't necessarily present the fluidity one would expect from a press corner, tight-hipped corners (most notably, Richard Sherman) have been known to thrive in this scheme. I am more concerned that his length doesn't allow him to make plays on the ball when his tight hips leave him slightly out of position on shorter routes, particularly in the red zone.


The 49ers look good at free safety for 2018. Jimmie Ward has struggled to remain healthy throughout a season, but he presents the ideal physical profile for the position, possessing the speed to reach the sideline from his middle zone, while displaying the physicality to deliver punishment in run support.

Adrian Colbert stepped in at the end of the season and provided more of the same, but some combination of his instincts, speed, and physicality allows him to separate receivers from the football more reliably than Ward. The 49ers' willingness to try Ward at cornerback this offseason indicates their faith in Colbert at safety, and the presence of both men on the 2018 roster means that the team has tremendous depth at the position. I believe the 49ers will look to more dire needs in the first round, giving Colbert a chance to grow further in the role where he has already demonstrated playmaking ability.

DERWIN JAMES


Derwin James is monster. He has the speed and mobility to play safety, with enough size and physicality to play inside linebacker. Among the heaps of praise he has collected this offseason, the most impressive may be the prevailing sentiment that he is a more athletic version of Kam Chancellor. I think that is an appropriate expectation to make of James. Like Chancellor, James can change the course of a game with his physicality. Like Chancellor, he has the speed and instincts to occasionally switch responsibilities with the free safety and cover the deep middle, which grants a creative defensive coordinator the opportunity to confuse a quarterback's reads and slow his progressions. Lastly, James possesses enough size to play dime linebacker, allowing his coordinator to sneak an extra defensive back onto the field in the dime package, without compromising run defense.

As impressive as James is athletically, I am most impressed by his physicality. Whether he is in run support or coverage, he approaches tackling as an opportunity to assert dominance, and he rarely gives up yards after contact. His ferocious collisions can provide an identity to an entire defense.


While I don't believe that James displays the fluidity to play single-high safety on a consistent basis, I don't see another weakness in his game. He truly is an amazing fit for any scheme as a strong safety. Unfortunately for James, the 49ers do not have a top-ten need at strong safety. As with Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety, Derwin James plays a position where the 49ers defense already features a promising young talent.

Jaquiski Tartt did not come into the league with the same fanfare as James, a star from Florida State University. Tartt did, however, play with enough physicality and athleticism to earn a second-round selection out of Samford. If you don't recognize the name of his school, that's the point. Tartt plays with an enormous chip on his shoulder, based upon his belief that he doesn't receive the respect he deserves as a player because he didn't come from a Power Five school. Tartt isn't quite as explosive as James as an athlete, but he was on his way to a breakout season in 2017, before he broke his forearm in a freak injury. My guess is that the 49ers will want to continue his development before they draft a first-round replacement, especially after letting a former Pro Bowl safety, Eric Reid, depart in free agency after being supplanted by Tartt.



Poll

  • Which defensive back would you prefer the 49ers to select with the ninth overall pick?
  • Denzel Ward
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Derwin James