The 49ers entered the 2018 season with few questions about their starting defense despite being in the midst of a roster overhaul under coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon were the clear-cut starters at cornerback. Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt topped the depth chart at the safety spots. Rookie linebacker Fred Warner was poised to take over the starting job early in training camp.
But all that certainty didn’t yield the results the team was looking for. There’s a growing sense a lack of competition throughout the defense led to stagnation, and coordinator Robert Saleh’s unit struggled to build off the promising end to 2017.
“You need competition at every spot, and I’m not sure we necessarily had that,” Sherman said Thursday. “We had guys at every spot, but you didn’t have guys that were starting-caliber NFL players necessarily right off the bat. We had a bunch of young guys who were developing into that.”
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The 49ers tried to ride the momentum from their 5-0 finish last season into the second year under the new regime. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo received much of the acclaim for that winning run, but the defense also showed drastic improvement last December, going under the radar behind Garoppolo’s splashy debut.
San Francisco’s defense ranked in the top 10 in yardage per game, yardage per play and overall scoring, while San Francisco became the first team in league history to go 0-9 and then finish with six wins.
The lesson for the 49ers: Momentum doesn’t carry through an offseason. At least, it didn’t guarantee players such as Witherspoon, Colbert and Reuben Foster (since released) would take great leaps into 2018. Saleh hopes to apply that lesson in the offseason and next fall, looking to build on a strong finish this season with improved play in Week 1.
“As far as a coordinator, trying to make sure that it starts fast,” Saleh said. “Again, continuing to stress continuity, maybe looking at training camp, which I think is going to happen naturally with all the different competition getting different guys playing with different people so they get used to communicating with everybody. There’s a lot of things that we can look at for sure to make sure that we start fast and we stay fast regardless of who’s in there.”
The competition should come from a new batch of young players who are having similar late-season success to last year’s rookie class. Strong safety Marcell Harris, a sixth-round pick who missed his final season at Florida with a torn Achilles’, has played well while Tartt deals with a shoulder injury. D.J. Reed, a fifth-round choice, has played free safety and nickel cornerback.
Both players could be in the mix to challenge for starting spots for 2019. Colbert, Tartt and top nickel corner K’Waun Williams didn’t face that competition entering last September.
“Competition brings the best out of everybody,” Sherman said. “I think that’s going to make this offseason really cool and really powerful because it will be open competition. I’m sure the depth charts will be wiped for the most part. And it will give everybody a fair shot to earn the spot, and when you have that, I think it brings a different element out of guys. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but you see guys for who they are and what they are.”
The 49ers won two in a row before losing to the Bears 14-9 last Sunday. They rank seventh in the NFL over the last three weeks, having allowed 17 points per game. They still rank 24th in opponent scoring for the season (25.8 per game) but cracked the top 10 in yardage allowed at 344.6 per game.
San Francisco will have plenty of salary-cap space to make improvements. Lynch and the front office are expected to have some $64 million in room, according to Overthecap.com, to lure possible free agents. They’ll also have a top-five draft pick in a class loaded with pass rushers off the edge, which is unquestionably their biggest need on defense.
“The longer we’re here, the more we’ll be able to put these drafts together, the more the competition will come up,” Shanahan said. “I think that’s what’s been so good ... at the end of this year that some of those draft picks and everything from this year have stepped it up and are definitely showing some of our draft picks from the year before that nothing is a lock going into next year.
“You say nothing is a lock going into every year, but players see better than they hear. They can see guys who play well and they can see guys who play bad. They know when a guy has the capability of beating them out.”