You might consider Adrian Colbert the Jimmy Garoppolo of the 49ers defense.
Not only does he play free safety, the de facto quarterback of the unit and one who mirrors the opposition's passer. Like Garoppolo, Colbert never got a full understanding of the playbook at his position last season and excelled largely because of his instincts and physical ability.
Last year's seventh-round pick began the 2017 offseason as a cornerback, then switched to free safety after a slew of injuries hit the position. He started six games there at the end of the season and played so well that he is in line to be the starter when the 49ers visit the Minnesota Vikings in the Sept. 9 season opener.
"I think last year he was kind of in survivor mode," defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley said. "You guys all remember, we kind of moved him late to the position. And I'd literally be like, 'Alright, you stand on this hash, you stand on (that) hash, and you go play football.'"
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
"Now there's more teaching because we have time with him to really understand the 'why' and understand how offenses are going to attack us," Hafley continued. "And it's cool to see him pick up on things like that. It's cool to see him get angry when he knows, 'Man, I really could have made that play if I had done that like we talked about.' … It's exciting. He's been a lot of fun to watch so far."
Hafley spoke Wednesday about several members of the secondary. Here's what he had to say about …
… cornerback Richard Sherman, who has been like another assistant coach on the sideline as he recovers from last year's Achilles injury.
JH: "I'm going to tell you, though, when he gets back to playing, it's going to be, 'You're not here for that reason anymore, you're here to dominate and play at a really high level. Because that's why you're here.' That's why I'm excited. I can't wait for him to get out and practice. I think he's going to (raise) the competitiveness of the group."
… Jimmie Ward, who is playing cornerback this year after lining up at free safety a year ago.
JH: "He played free safety last year in this system, so we know he can do it. And we believe he can do it at a high level. Now our main focus with him is just, go out and put your feet back under yourself in being a corner like you were two years ago, learn this system -- it's a little bit different; it's not just man (coverage) all the time -- and we'll go from there with Jimmie."
… cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who wasn't even in uniform for the first four games of 2017 but who started the last nine.
JH: "I think the cool part is, if you put on tape of Ahkello from last year's OTAs and now, you wouldn't have any idea it was him. … He believes in himself now. He knows he can do it now and he believes he can do it at a very high level. And to see him actually, day by day, get better on things has been a lot of fun to watch. He takes things very seriously. He's really a very intelligent person. And he studies the tape and he learns quickly from his mistakes. And day by day you do see him get better and you see him get more confident. And I'm very excited for him."
… third-round pick Tarvarius Moore, who is transitioning from college free safety to NFL cornerback. Is Hafley seeing the qualities the 49ers thought would help Moore make that jump?
JH: "Yes, and that's a good question. (He's) very fast, very explosive. He's not going to get run by. Sometimes you have to realize, 'Hey, you can slow down a little bit, man. He's not going to run by you.' Even the guys in the (meeting) room will kind of joke with him about that. He still has to get more experience at the position because he still shows at times he's a little raw. But it's exciting. He's very patient already, which is very hard for especially young corners in this league. You'll see him sit at the line and be really patient and calm. The cool thing I respect about him is he's really excited for the challenge. He's all-in, and he's improving every day."
... sixth-round pick Marcell Harris, who is recovering from an Achilles injury last season and who is one of several would-be strong safeties (Chanceller James and Don Jones are the others) poised to return when training camp begins.
JH: "His toughness jumps off the tape. You said the word 'enforcer' -- that's what he looks like. I'm really excited to see what he can do when the pads come on. And I'm excited to get him back. He's been great to have in the (meeting) room."