After a season in which they registered just two interceptions, the San Francisco 49ers secondary left a lot to be desired. Despite that, the team opted to not invest a lot into the unit for the 2019 season.
The San Francisco 49ers secondary, like the rest of the team, had a forgetful 2018. They finished dead last in both Pro Football Focus’ team coverage grade and interceptions (2). The two interceptions were an all-time NFL low. Despite the glaring weakness of the unit, the 49ers opted to stand pat.
The 49ers signed CB Jason Verrett to a one year, $1.1M contract, with $600,000 in guarantees. Since entering the league in 2014, Verrett has played in just 25 out of a possible 64 career games. In his only healthy season, he played 14 games and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate to Darrelle Revis. The price was perfect for the 49ers to take a chance on a Pro Bowl caliber player, as they are risking nothing financially. I love the signing, but I think they needed to bring in a reliable player for the secondary in free agency. Counting on Verrett to contribute this year is just foolish. They didn’t bring in a credible player in free agency and didn’t spend much draft capital on the unit either.
The 49ers drafted Tim Harris in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL draft. He was a 4-star recruit coming out of High School, but two season-ending injuries derailed his collegiate career. The 49ers love their inexpensive injury risks. If healthy, he has all of the physical tools needed to be a starting CB in the NFL. Of course, the biggest question is indeed his health. For a sixth-round pick, it was well worth the risk.
The reason cited by Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch as to why they didn’t draft a defensive back was that they didn’t believe a rookie could come in and take a starting job from what they currently have on the roster. While that may be true, it is still naïve considering Richard Sherman is aging, and Jason Verrett is injury prone. There are a lot of injury-plagued question marks in this secondary.
The lone bright spot for the 2018 unit was Richard Sherman. The veteran CB started 14 games for San Francisco and earned a PFF coverage grade of 68.1. He is locked into a starting role heading into the 2019 season. The 49ers will need his steady presence in the secondary if they hope to improve this year.
The other two significant contributors at corner figure to be K’Waun Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon was a third-round pick in 2017 and had a fantastic rookie year by PFF’s standards, starting nine games and finishing with a grade of 74.5. He dropped off dramatically in 2018, but the 49ers are banking on him returning to his 2017 form.
Williams was with the Cleveland Browns for his first two years before sitting out 2016 due to ankle surgery. He joined the 49ers in 2017, and in 2018 he finished as the team’s second-highest graded CB according to PFF. With Verrett expected to be the starter opposite Sherman, Williams figures to compete for Nickel package snaps with Witherspoon.
The 49ers signed oft-injured Safety Jimmie Ward to a one year, $2,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed. Ward, a first-round pick in 2014, has never started a full season, yet the 49ers choose to bring him in for one last go around. He has just two interceptions in his career. If they see playmaking ability in him, it hasn’t surfaced yet.
Jaquiski Tartt figures to start opposite Ward in the defensive backfield. Tartt is another former high draft pick with an injury history. He was selected in the second round of the 2015 draft and has been known for his coverage against opposing Tight Ends. However, much like the rest of the San Francisco secondary, he has seen his past two seasons end early due to injury. He missed the remainder of the 2017 season with a broken arm, while it was his shoulder that did him in in 2018.
Another route for the 49ers to improve their secondary play is through a bolstered pass rush. San Francisco traded for Kansas City pass rusher Dee Ford and used the second overall pick to select Nick Bosa in the 2019 draft. A recent study by PFF’s Eric Eager (@PFF_Eric) was published, saying that coverage grades contribute more to a team’s win total than pass rush grades. However, despite his finding, Eric also admitted on the Niners Nation podcast with Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) that coverage tends to fluctuate more than pass rush year to year. For a team that finished dead last in many coverage metrics, that is music to their ears.
While the 49ers have quite a bit of draft capital invested in their secondary, the unit comes with a lengthy injury history as well. If everyone remains healthy and plays up to their potential and the pass rush improves like I believe it will, I dare say this will be an area of strength in 2019. That is a big if, however. Another disappointing season could send San Francisco into an early rebuild.