The 2019 Rebuild Starts in the Secondary

Bret Rumbeck
Feb 5, 2019 at 8:02 PM

"February is always a bad month for TV sports. Football is gone, basketball is plodding along in the annual mid-season doldrums, and baseball is not even mentioned." – Hunter S. Thompson

Welcome to the slow season.

The confetti that fell from the robotic roof of Mercedes-Ben Stadium may mean joy to our new NFL champion, but to me, it's the dawn of people pointlessly predicting win-loss records and ESPN defrosting Mel Kiper from his cryogenic freeze to build 438 mock draft boards.

Last season, the San Francisco 49ers were riding high on the hype train as they entered the 2018 season. A plague of injuries and a lack of overall ability with the second- and third-team resulted in a rough four-win season.

General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were the right men to pull the 49ers' leaky and childish front office from an ugly place. Their infectious attitudes have reignited a fan base, and have people looking forward to competitive football.

However, the new regime has failed to break .500, making this offseason a critical juncture for both men. A rebuild isn't complete until the fans sitting under the sweltering sun see a 12-win team.

The previous strategy of building a roster on the cheap must be purged from the minds of the 49ers' executive team. It hasn't worked, and it's led to playing men who have no business being on an NFL roster.

With roughly $60 million in cap space according to, it's time to bring in blue-chip talent on both sides of the ball. A championship squad cannot be built on the hope that a practice squad player will blossom into a Hall of Fame legend.

Over the next few weeks, I'll review each position group and share who I think will end up staying and who the 49ers need to target in free agency and the draft.

The 49ers' secondary might have had the roughest year out of any position group. Before the start of the season, it appeared as if the cover men were destined for a top three pass defense. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman's experience, leadership, and swagger, mixed with younger players like Adrian Colbert, Jaquaski Tartt, and Ahkello Witherspoon felt like the right combination.

Colbert, Tartt, Witherspoon, and safety Jimmie Ward all ended up on injured reserve, forcing Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to start unprepared rookies and practice squad journeymen.

However, Shanahan and the coaching staff deserve a gold mine of credit for what they were able to do with the secondary scrap heap of the NFL. The 49ers' pass defense ranked 11th in the NFL, six spots ahead of the Seattle Seahawks and outranked the Kansas City Chiefs by 20 places.

Lynch, Shanahan, and Saleh have a lot of what-ifs to contemplate as they begin to fine tune the secondary. I know it's February, but here's who I believe they'll keep:

Adrian Colbert
Antone Exum, Jr.
Tavarius Moore
Marcell Harris
Richard Sherman
Jaquiski Tartt
K'Waun Williams
Ahkello Witherspoon

Here are the players I believe they'll release or not resign:
D.J. Reed, Jr.
Godwin Igwebuilke
Greg Mabin
Emmanuel Mosley
Tyvis Powell
Tyree Robinson
Jimmie Ward
Terrell Williams, Jr.

Free Agent Targets

Obvious: Safety Earl Thomas
After watching the 49er safeties struggle in coverage or just stand around in the endzone and not move, I wanted to see Lynch bring in Earl Thomas from Seattle.

Safety Adrian Colbert was having an atrocious season, which included giving up a 75-yard touchdown to open the Week 5 contest against Arizona. Even though Colbert only played 20 percent of 1,119 snaps, his Pro Football Focus grades placed him dead last in coverage and defense among his fellow safeties.

Thomas' skill on the field and mastery of Saleh's system are too valuable for the 49ers to ignore. He'd be a significant upgrade over Colbert and may help Tartt better understand the subtler nuances of the various coverages.

Darkhorse: Safety Landon Collins
If Thomas is unavailable, then safety Landon Collins might be the right addition to the secondary. Collins earned grades over 80 from Pro Football Focus in 2016 and 2017 but slipped to 70.4 last season.

Even with a decline in play, and missing the last four games of the season due to a partially torn labrum, he still earned a far higher grade than any safety on the 49ers' roster.

However, Collins has stated he'd like to stay in New York, even if he has to play under the franchise tag.

Draft Prospects

Deandre Baker, CB – Georgia
The top priority for the 49ers in this year's draft needs to be an edge rusher. The entire known universe is aware of how badly the team needs a capable body to dominate the end of the line of scrimmage.

However, there is a long time between now and the end of April and the 49ers may move many possible choices around on the draft board depending on the combine, interviews, and miles of film.

If Lynch and Shanahan wanted to start rebuilding the secondary, they could choose to trade back a few spots and pick up University of Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker.

Baker is an Associated Press All-America first-team player and the winner of the 2018 Jim Thorpe Award for the best defensive back in college football. He appeared in 51 games for the Bulldogs and made 36 starts.

What's unknown is how the 49ers and the other 31 teams feel about Baker skipping both the Sugar Bowl and Senior Bowl. But, these factors of a player's character and thought process are probably ironed out during meetings with teams.

He also had downfield coverage issues and is only 5'11 and 185 pounds. These factors have me wary of the 49ers taking a chance on another defensive back who isn't feared by the opposition.

Second/Third Round: Julian Love, CB – Notre Dame
The 49ers are currently slotted to pick fifth in the second round of the draft, which may allow them to choose cornerback Julian Love from Notre Dame.

Love played 38 games for the Irish, racking up 126 solo tackles and five interceptions. His 44 pass break-ups place him first in school history. Love had a 14-tackle game against Navy during the 2017 season and tallied 12 against USC on November 24, 2018.

Two issues that may cause Lynch to skip over Love are his size and problems in press coverage. But I am a firm believer that a pro coaching staff can help a young man like Love train and eat right to put on weight.

The 49ers' struggles with the secondary were not fully on one man's shoulders. Shanahan and Saleh made the needed adjustments, and I'm impressed with what they did with the little talent on the roster. Saleh does need to find new methods to bring Adrian Colbert and Ahkello Witherspoon up to their potential.

Rebuilding starts with signing Thomas and hopefully drafting Love. Both men will drive the offseason and training camp competition, making the unit much stronger.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
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.


  • Old dirty G
    I don’t care if your name is Dion Sanders . A non existent pass rush would get him bounced from the league . Consistent pressure makes mediocre coverage men into pro bowlers and letting QBs set their feet and make their reads will make great coverage men into car salesmen . Niners did the latter last year . All we should be focused on is hurrying the QB. ( see what NE did to the Rams offense ?) that’s EXACTLY how important the pass rush is . It’s EVERTHING . Period.
    Feb 9, 2019 at 1:48 PM
  • CHR
    There is no way that DJ Reed will be cut. That is just silly.
    Feb 6, 2019 at 7:57 PM
  • mcroft
    The rebuild has to focus on the pass rush first! Mark McMillian at 5' 7" was a Pro Bowl DB in KC. SF signs him as a FA in 1999, and he got burned so often that the league would not let him play unless the fire dept was on the sideline! PASS RUSH PASS RUSH PASS RUSH
    Feb 6, 2019 at 12:46 PM
  • JCap
    If Colbert was so bad, and he was! Then why would you keep him and cut DJ Reed, I thought Reed played pretty well last season.
    Feb 6, 2019 at 10:22 AM
  • The Grigga
    Adrian Colbert was hanging our cornerbacks out to dry all season long. He made Witherspoon look worse than he was supposed to. He was PFF lowest ranked safety in the NFL when he left with injury I don't know why people think he is so untouchable he's on a seventh-round deal. He should be challenged to an all-out old-school War preferably by Jimmie Ward and Adrian Colbert will lose and lose bad. Plus Ward is fundamentally the best tackler on the team
    Feb 6, 2019 at 9:41 AM
  • The Grigga
    And we already did rebuild the secondary. Everybody is so impatient , All of our guys our so young. Two, possibly three positions should be open and those are Greg Mabin, tyvis Powell, and possibly Antone Exum jr. When you have the choice between him or Jimmie Ward it is just not even close there is no logic to that thinking whatsoever. But anyways we have already rebuilt. Everyone is so impatient these days. Let these young guys grow together.
    Feb 6, 2019 at 9:33 AM
  • The Grigga
    When we have the third amount of money of cap space in the NFL. And you have the choice between Antone Exum jr. Or Jimmie Ward, how on Earth could you justify bringing Exum jr. Back? Especially considering Jimmy Wards versatility. Listen jaquiski tartt has never played a 16-game season Jimmie Ward can even say he has done that so why one gets a free pass and why one doesn't is beside me. He's possibly the most versatile DB in the NFL and he is our second best cornerback and he doesn't even play corner. He stole Witherspoon's job like it was free don't forget that. How could you justify keeping Exam and letting Ward walk considering the cap space we have and he's not going to be expensive. I just don't understand some people's logic. He's even better than Williams in the slot. When he played free safety where he should be left alone we were the third best pass defense during that string. Nothing over-the-top like when Adrian Colbert was killing us he's a seventh-round pick he should be the one that gets cut not dj Reed who was an All-American corner
    Feb 6, 2019 at 9:30 AM

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