The 49ers have been a dark horse pick by many experts to make a significant upward move in the 2019 season, from possibly making the playoffs to winning the division and maybe even challenging the top dogs for a run at the big game. Whatever the prediction, the focus has been on the wide receivers group on offense and the pass rush and DBs on the defensive side of the ball.

The receiver position was addressed in the draft (and the signing of Jordan Matthews, to a lesser extent). The pass rush was addressed through the signing of Dee Ford and the drafting of Nick Bosa. The cornerback position was addressed somewhat with the Jason Verrett signing, although he is coming off of a significant injury. The safety position, however, was left completely as it was at the end of last season.

There were a ton of quality safeties available in free agency, including Landon Collins, Adrian Amos, Eric Weddle, Tyrann Mathieu, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Lamarcus Joyner and Earl Thomas. The Niners made no apparent move to sign any of them (I felt that Amos would have been a perfect fit), and all wound up with other teams. The Niners did re-sign Jimmie Ward, who Kyle Shanahan talked up in a big way but who has both been sporadic as a safety and has been injured in some way during every season of his NFL tenure.

Why does safety matter so much? Well, the safety has multiple functions in the 49ers' defensive scheme, from covering backs and tight ends to stopping the run to being the last line of defense in preventing the offense from hitting a long pass for a touchdown. Safety is incredibly difficult to play, and the position's value cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, the safeties were both inconsistent and riddled with injuries in 2018. The team went into the offseason knowing that it needed to improve. That being said, there is still, unfortunately, a fair amount of uncertainty as to exactly who will be where when the season starts.

Projected to Start


Strong Safety: The strong safety position seems to be the one with the most certainty going into training camp. Jaquiski Tartt has been named the starter, which is not surprising due to the fact that he started most of the season last year. That said, he struggles in coverage, seems a bit stiff in his hips and awkward in his drops, and seems to struggle with reads, leaving him to rely on athleticism to make up for late breaks and slow reads. He has also been injury-prone, missing 7 games in 2017 and 6 games in 2018 before being placed on injured reserve. When he did play, he was graded as the 56th-best safety in the league by Pro Football Focus.

Tartt, as the strong safety, is tasked with primary coverage of the tight end and filling to stop the run, meaning he has to be fast, strong and durable. The team apparently feels that his future is bright, as it signed him to a two-year, $13 million extension last offseason.

Free Safety: According to Kyle Shanahan, Jimmie Ward will be the starting free safety in 2019. This plan hit a glitch, however, when Ward suffered a broken collarbone during OTAs as he dove for a ball. It is unclear whether he will be ready for the start of training camp at this point. Seeing Ward injured has become something to which 49er fans have become accustomed. He has been on injured reserve 4 of the 5 years that he has been in the league, and has played in 51 of a possible 80 games.

When healthy, Ward has primarily played cornerback, because of his speed, although he was a safety in college. Last season, the team tried him at safety, with mixed results (mostly not good results, however, as he was the 82nd ranked safety in the NFL with a 55.2 rating). Admittedly, Ward has never spent an entire offseason and training camp focused on the position, being bounced from slot corner to corner to safety, seemingly depending on the day of the week, which is not something that benefits a player's development. The hope is that he will remember the position and take coaching well. If things go well, Ward could be a textbook single high safety - but that is hoping for a LOT.

Backups


Free Safety: Adrian Colbert was given the starting job at free safety prior to last season, based upon his surprisingly good play in 2017. A seventh-round draft pick that year out of Miami, Colbert switched from corner to safety and was a bright spot in his rookie year, seizing the starting spot and playing well. He had a huge regression in his second season, ultimately winding up being the 91st-ranked safety in the league, losing his job and then winding up on the injured list.

Colbert's angles were poor, his tackling was bad, his reads were off, it was just a bad year for him all the way around. If he can find his 2017 form, if he can play to the level that he once had, he could well challenge for the starting position again. One interesting thought is that Colbert might be able to play strong safety if Tartt struggles, allowing the team to keep Ward at free safety (if he plays well and stays healthy) or possibly sliding the player discussed below into that spot.

Tarvarius Moore is a dark horse in the free safety group. Moore played the position in college, but his elite speed (4.32 40-yard dash), and length (6'2") made the Niners want to fit him into the mix at cornerback. He struggled with the switch, and given the number of true corners on the team, coupled with the improvement of Akhello Witherspoon and the Verrett signing, the need at corner is not what it was prior to last season, when Moore was drafted. The need at safety remains, however, and even with Ward being all but handed the job, the fact remains that there may well be an opportunity here.

Moore has the speed and raw skill that could, with coaching and time, result in his developing into a top free safety in the future. When Ward went down in training camp, Moore was moved to the position and seemed to fit in quite well (when asked how it felt to move back to safety after being tried at corner during his entire rookie season, his response was, "It's good to be home"). The team saw his measurables and tried to move him to corner, but it didn't work. Perhaps the smart move is to acknowledge that he is a safety and work him into the mix at that position during training camp and the preseason. Certainly, having two safeties (along with Ward) who can fill in at cornerback is never a bad thing.

DJ Reed actually graded out as the best free safety on the Niners' roster in 2018, which may not be saying a whole lot. He was drafted out of Kansas State to play nickel/slot corner, but was forced into action at safety when first Colbert and then Ward got hurt. Reed's biggest problem is his lack of the size necessary to play the position. At 5'9" and 188 lbs., it seems highly unlikely that the team would look to him as a long-term solution at safety. It is much more likely that he will return to his more natural spot at slot corner and be available should catastrophe once again strike the defensive backfield and leave him as the only healthy option.

Strong Safety: Marcell Harris was a gamble by the Niners, having started only one year at Florida, playing fairly well, but then tearing his Achilles just prior to his senior season. They took him anyway, and he was given a baptism by fire last season, being forced into action when pretty much every other safety on the team got hurt. He showed a couple of flashes, but overall did not look the part of an NFL-caliber safety. He hits hard, but his coverage skills and speed are average and his ability to diagnose plays was lacking. The primary reason that he will likely remain as the backup at strong safety is that he is a younger, cheaper and slightly better long-term option than Antone Exum, Jr., who is discussed below.

Antone Exum, Jr. has experience both at the safety position and in the NFL, being drafted by the Vikings in 2014. He got playing time in 2014 and 2015, even starting two games, but then spent all of the 2016 season on IR, then was cut in September of the 2017 season. The Niners claimed him, and he has been filling in where needed ever since. As he has spent some time in the league, the fact that he has not even challenged for more playing time on a team with the kind of needs that the Niners have had at safety over the past two years does not bode well for Exum. The reality is that he will be fighting to make final roster cuts unless he dominates in training camp.

Possible Additions


Many fans, and more than a few "experts," have clamored for the Niners to bring in either Eric Berry or Tre Boston, two safeties who remain unsigned. These players have their own problems — which is why neither has been signed.

Berry was once a top safety in the NFL; however, age, injury (he missed 2011 with an ACL, 2017 with a torn Achilles and almost all of 2018 with a sore heel) and illness (remember that he fought and beat Lymphoma, missing the 2015 season), led to his missing 29 straight games. Relying upon his availability, despite his incredible history and unquestioned leadership wherever he might play, is not something the 49ers can risk, Besides, he will not come cheap.

Boston is another matter — fast, strong, a big hitter, Boston looks like the perfect fit. But he has shown a total inability to play within a scheme, to play under control, to stick with assignments and not freelance, which has led to a number of serious breakdowns and blown plays in his career. He does not seem willing or able to change. Bringing in an undisciplined safety who can not be counted on to protect the deep ball or maintain assignments is perhaps the worst thing that this team could do. No, the 49ers are actually, at this point, best served by trying to work with and develop the players they have.

Outlook


It is truly not possible to not only speculate how the safeties will play for this defense, nor is it possible to speculate who will ultimately take the field for this team when the season comes. Tartt and Ward may wind up playing the whole season. Colbert may take Ward's spot. Colbert may take Tartt's spot. Moore may shock everyone and take the free safety position.

If I were to make a prediction, I believe that Colbert will wind up playing strong safety, that Tartt will show that he is not the answer, and that Moore will wind up playing free safety at some point and becoming the long-term starter. It is possible that the safeties will be a strength of this team — it is just not likely, given the history of this group. Hopefully, with Sherman being his old self and either Witherspoon or Verrett playing strong corner on the other side, coupled with a much-improved pass rush, the pressure on this group will be less than it has been the past two years and it will step up to the challenge, helping to solidify the back end of the defense. This team's chances of making the playoffs certainly depend on it.

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  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.