San Francisco 49ers

49ers Mailbag: How much pressure does defensive coordinator Robert Saleh face this year?

Crickets. That’s all we’ve been hearing since the end of minicamp last month as many 49ers are vacationing ahead of the start of training camp July 26. But we’re back to break up the quietest portion of the offseason with another mailbag.

To your questions!

Kevin A. Molina asks: Given the significant changes (the 49ers) have made to the defensive coaching staff and scheme, along with how they addressed their biggest defensive need, how much pressure is Robert Saleh under to make it work this season?

I’d say quite a bit. The 49ers not-so-subtly identified key problems the last two seasons when they overhauled the medical and training staffs after injuries played a big role in their 10-22 record since Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch took over. If the defense doesn’t show significant improvement in 2019, Saleh could share the same fate.

After all, the front office has made significant investments in the defense since the new regime began calling shots. The defensive front has the talent to be one of the best in the league – on paper – and the pressure should be mounting on Saleh to maximize that group now that he has a new secondary coach with coordinator experience (Joe Woods) and a defensive line coach who should fit well with new defensive ends Dee Ford and Nick Bosa (Kris Kocurek).

The big question is the secondary. Shanahan and Lynch have both made it clear they’re content with players such as Jimmie Ward, Adrian Colbert, Jaquiski Tartt, Akhello Witherspoon and Marcell Harris in important roles, even if those players have yet to establish themselves as consistent, reliable starters. If the secondary struggles again, would Saleh fall on the sword or would the front office bear the blame? That remains to be seen.

The 49ers would argue their record-breaking lack of takeaways last season was mostly a fluke related to bad luck and injuries while the overall counting statistics weren’t all that bad. The team ranked 13th in opponents’ yards per game (347) and 12th in yards allowed through the air (233). The lack of takeaways, paired with the offense’s knack for turning the ball over, led to allowing 27.2 points per game, which ranked 28th in the league.

Perhaps catching more breaks and avoiding injuries will lead to a drastic turnaround for Saleh’s group. Or perhaps the defense stagnates and San Francisco is forced to shop for a new coordinator come January.

Frank Davis asks: Will (Weston) Richburg be ready for training camp? Will all injured players in general be ready to roll?

I’ve been told the 49ers are hoping Richburg can be back for the start of camp after missing the entire offseason program following knee/quad surgery. But the new training staff has been *very* cautious with players dealing with ailments and would rather keep them sidelined than risk further injury. In Richburg’s case, he should know the offense as well as anyone given the vast responsibilities as a the center and might not need the same number of training camp reps as others.

Regarding the other players working back from injury, the 49ers are optimistic about getting Jimmy Garoppolo (ACL), Matt Breida (pectoral), Raheem Mostert (fractured arm), Jalen Hurd (knee), Fred Warner (knee) and Bosa (hamstring) fully cleared for the start of camp.

They’re taking a wait-and-see approach with the others like Jason Verrett (Achilles), Ward (broken collar bone), Jerick McKinnon (ACL), D.J. Reed (shoulder) and Kwon Alexander (ACL). We’ll have a better idea when players report back to Santa Clara later this month for their conditioning tests.

Ant G asks: Any substance to Tre Boston to San Francisco articles from the past couple of days or people just shootin’ half court shots because we’re in football purgatory?

I haven’t heard anything about the 49ers’ interest in Boston. My feeling is they would have signed him following Ward’s injury in late May if they coveted him. Otherwise, they seem content with Ward, Colbert, Reed and Tarvarius Moore at free safety in the meantime (and Boston’s camp might see the same thing and decide to wait for another team that could offer a bigger role).

I’ll be watching Moore very closely throughout training camp. I was told by someone who watched all his offseason reps at safety (the media was only allowed to watch a handful of practices) that Moore was impressive in his move back to his natural position. Remember, Moore was a third-round pick and was one of the most athletic players in his 2018 draft class. His move to safety could explain why there weren’t more significant investments made in the secondary this offseason.

However, injuries happen, and the 49ers should be willing to sign a player like Boston if they prop up again. I’d imagine it would take another injury that could bleed into the regular season for the 49ers to sign him if he doesn’t get snatched up elsewhere.

Dave asks: Who do you foresee being the starting safeties? And who do you think ends up saturating at CB opposite Sherman?

The early favorites to start at safety have to be Ward and Tartt, though both players have lengthy injury histories that could lead to Colbert or Harris getting snaps. Moore is the talented wild card who could end up starting games if he proves to be the quick study he was during the offseason.

I believe the 49ers signed Verrett because they think he’s still good enough to start. Remember, he went to the Pro Bowl the last time he started the bulk of regular season in 2015. The problem, of course, he’s only started five games since then and missed all of last year with a torn Achilles. It’s impossible to bank on him for 16 games, but the Chargers’ first-round draft pick in 2014 should be able to beat Witherspoon for a starting job if his health allows it.

Otherwise, it’s hard to see another player overtaking Witherspoon at right cornerback opposite Sherman. Grerg Mabin and Dontae Johnson received the bulk of the second-team reps last month.

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