49ers rookie Tarvarius Moore on switch from safety to corner: 'Going to be a process'
When Tarvarius Moore ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash — blistering for a 200-pound safety — at Southern Mississippi's pro day on March 29, there was jubilation from Moore's camp.
At 49ers headquarters, the reaction was a bit different.
"I remember talking about it," Adam Peters, the 49ers vice president of player personnel, said recently. "We were all kind of p---- that he ran that fast because now we would have to take him a little higher."
Said Kyle Shanahan: "When (a draft prospect) is not invited to the combine and things like that, you think you've got a sleeper. And then the guy goes and runs a 4.32 at his pro day and all of a sudden he's not so much of a sleeper."
Nowadays, there's no such thing as a complete draft secret in the NFL. The 32 teams have personnel departments with 20 or more scouts and evaluators in them. Even for a school like Southern Miss — which plays in Conference USA and certainly isn't considered a football powerhouse — teams will send two or three scouts to the campus during the college season to check out the talent.
Moore never would have slipped entirely through the cracks, but he did have the potential to be hidden among them, making him what Shanahan called a sleeper prospect. After all, he spent his freshman and sophomore seasons at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss. He was a backup at Southern Miss in 2016 and didn't become a full-time starter there until 2017. Last season he put up the kind of numbers, including three interceptions and 10 pass breakups, to qualify for the NFL's annual scouting combine.
But he is the rare early round draft pick who didn't get an invitation. In fact, Moore and the Raiders’ P.J. Hall were the only players drafted in rounds Nos. 1-3 this year who didn't interview with NFL teams and show off their skills in Indianapolis.
Peters is second in command to general manager John Lynch in San Francisco's personnel department, and in that position he'll often start hearing about potential draft prospects when they are freshmen or sophomores. He didn't come across Moore's name until December of his senior season.
So how did Moore go from relative unknown to third-round pick? The following offers a glimpse at the hours of study — and miles of travel — that go into finding just one player and how, in an ideal situation, a team's scouting and coaching staffs work in concert to make a selection.
Peters may not have started examining Moore until after the college season, but the 49ers still had a bead on him earlier than most teams. Both of the scouts who went through Southern Miss — John Stevenson, who covers the southwest, and Darrell Moody, the team's South region scout — gave Moore high grades during the 49ers' December meeting. That's when the scouting staff reassembles in Santa Clara after the college season and begins building the team's draft board.
Peters watched Moore's game film and agreed he was someone worthy of more research.
"You saw the instincts on his tape," he said. "And he only started one year there. He was just around the ball, getting jumps on things. And he kind of had that vision to get those jumps."
The team’s interest accelerated further when the 49ers coaches became involved in the process in early February. Until that point, the 49ers had been looking at Moore as a free safety, his college position. Secondary coach Jeff Hafley, however, wondered if he had the traits to play cornerback in the 49ers system, which covets instincts, maneuverability, speed and, above all else, size.
Moore stands 6-foot-1 and has 33 1/8-inch arms — long for a defensive back. Richard Sherman, who has become the prototype for press-coverage cornerbacks, has 32-inch levers; the arms of the team's other starter, Ahkello Witherspoon, measure 33 inches exactly.
Hafley began piecing together instances in which Moore was in man-to-man coverage in college, even going so far as to dig up his Pearl River tape. He produced a cut-up of those plays he used to make a case for converting Moore to cornerback.
After taking the promising Witherspoon in the third round in 2017, Hafley was excited about grabbing another under-appreciated player at the position even later in this year’s draft. "I just had this feeling that he could play corner in our system," Hafley said.
Said Peters: “Coach Hafley, he put a lot of work into him. Between February and really until the draft, he really was digging in and making sure he was really convicted. I give him a lot of credit."
Then Moore ran his blazing 40-yard dash time and the worrying began. Hafley had planned to fly to Hattiesburg, Miss., to give Moore a workout and thereby confirm his suspicion that he would be able to play cornerback.
But Moore suddenly was a hot name, and 13 other teams arranged for him to visit their headquarters for formal visits in the first two and half weeks of April. His agent understandably scuttled the workout with San Francisco.
“I was probably an under-the-radar guy,” Moore said. “Not a lot of teams knew a lot about me, and if they did, they were trying to keep it under wraps. But after my pro day, it definitely opened a lot of eyes and I was no longer that guy you could sweep under the rug.”
While most teams rushed to learn about Moore in the final weeks before the draft, the 49ers already had done the bulk of the work and decided to play it cool. They could have arranged for him to visit them in Santa Clara, which in draft parlance is known as an "official 30" visit. Doing so, however, could have telegraphed their interest since the visits often become public knowledge.
“Those visits are very high risk-reward,” Shanahan said. “We don't want you (reporters) to guess everyone in our mock drafts and stuff. Can't be automatic, ‘You only draft people you visit with.’ Got to mix it up for you guys.”
The 49ers instead used a more subtle tactic, sending assistant defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks to Mississippi to sit down with Moore. The meeting gave them the final bit of reassurance they needed to use a higher-than-originally-planned pick on the defensive back.
The 49ers began Day 2 of the draft with three picks in the third round. One was used to help the team move up in the second round to select receiver Dante Pettis. Another was used to take linebacker Fred Warner.
Finally, with the 95th overall selection, the 49ers grabbed Moore.
"I actually had a couple of teams call me after we picked him, and they said, 'Hey, we really liked this guy. But we just didn't have enough time to spend on him,’ ” Peters said. “Because I think a lot of teams really jumped on him after he had that pro day. And then they were kind of scrambling to catch up."
Moore looked very much like a beginning cornerback when spring practices began in May. But the 49ers were pleased with his session-by-session progress, and by the time June practices ended Moore was working steadily with the second-team defense.
“He doesn't panic at the line of scrimmage, which is something that a lot of young corners kind of have to get out of their systems,” Peters said. “And he doesn't have that. The other things will come. There are new techniques and whatnot. But you see the skills that are there and you definitely know that he can do it. … He's going to have a little learning curve. But so far, so good.”