Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury in Week 3 of last season was easily the biggest factor in the San Francisco 49ers finishing 4-12 and landing the second-overall pick in the draft.
A close second was the team’s inability to take the ball away from opponents. San Francisco had just two interceptions in 16 regular season games, setting a new, staggeringly-low record for the Super Bowl era. Coordinator Robert Saleh will need much more from his safeties this season if the 49ers are going to break their five-year playoff drought.
What better place to start our training camp positional preview series than with safety before training camp begins July 26.
Defining story line: Better health, better play
Injuries at safety were paramount in 2018. The 49ers started eight different combinations of safeties – and didn’t get the same combination in four straight games until the final month when rookie sixth-round pick Marcell Harris played strong safety alongside journeyman Antone Exum Jr. Both were buried on the depth chart when the season began.
Many expected the 49ers to invest heavily in the position this spring. After all, former first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward was slated for unrestricted free agency and Jaquiski Tartt missed nearly half his games over the previous two seasons with injuries. And the once-promising Adrian Colbert appeared to regress after a strong rookie campaign in 2017.
But San Francisco mostly stood pat, deciding to bring the 193-pound Ward back on a modest one-year, $5 million contract despite landing on season-ending injured reserve in four of his five NFL seasons with broken bones. Compounding the questions surrounding that decision, Ward suffered a fractured collar bone in May, though the team expects he’ll be cleared to return at some point August.
Fans were shocked the 49ers didn’t make a play for veteran star Earl Thomas, who signed a massive four-year, $55 million contract with the Ravens, which was probably outside of San Francisco’s price range despite a glut of cap space.
Constant injuries aside, coach Kyle Shanahan has sworn by what Ward brings on the field and in his preparation. He’s been moved to free safety full time after working mostly at cornerback in 2018. But Ward won’t be able to help if he’s on the sideline in another cast.
The hope for San Francisco: improved health leads to better continuity – which leads to more interceptions. If not, expect an overhaul to happen at safety next offseason in the same way edge rusher was bolstered this spring by adding Dee Ford in a trade from the Chiefs and using a first-round draft pick on Nick Bosa. The team is hoping the improved pass rush could help mask the problems facing the secondary.
Ward and Tartt should enter training camp as the early favorites to start. The duo is the most talented, experienced and established at the position. The problem, again, they’ve combined to miss 31 starts the past two seasons with injuries.
Colbert started six of the first seven games last season before needing surgery to repair a high-ankle sprain suffered in October. He might be best off as a third safety who works as a gunner on special teams, which is where he impressed the coaching staff before being made a starter late in 2017 when Ward suffered the first of two consecutive fractured forearms.
Expect the safeties to play differently this year under new secondary coach Joe Woods, who was most recently the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos. The safeties will be far more interchangeable than the last two years, when the strong safety would play in the box leaving the free safety some 15 yards deep to cover the middle of the field.
Woods’ objective will be to confuse quarterbacks by varying pre-snap looks, which could include shifting the free safety to the box and leaving the strong safety to cover the deep third. Or the team might abandon the single-high emphasis altogether and use two safeties deep more often.
Simply, there’s nowhere to go but up for this group after all the injuries and coverage breakdowns in 2018.
Sleeper(s) to watch
The 49ers switched 2018 third-round draft pick Tarvarius Moore back to safety during the offseason program after working at cornerback as a rookie. The team sold the move as a necessity given the all the injuries at the position. Someone had to take the practice reps with the second and third stringers.
The Southern Mississippi alum impressed during the spring. He’s worth keeping an eye on because he’s one of the most athletic players on the roster. He shot up draft boards by running a blazing 4.32 in the 40 at his pro day after not being invited to the combine. He also jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical and 133 inches in the broad jump, good for the 97th percentile at his position.
Moore has enough upside – and not enough trustworthy players ahead of him – he could earn real playing time at one of the safety spots.
Harris was a quick study at strong safety late last year. But it remains to be seen if he’s versatile enough to handle deep safety responsibilities in Woods’ new-look approach. Remember, he fell in the draft largely because he was coming off an Achilles tear and was added to play near the line of scrimmage like a quasi-linebacker.
D.J. Reed, a fifth-round pick in 2018, showed flashes last year before missing the offseason program to recover from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. Reed is expected to be cleared at some point during training camp and could play both free safety and in the slot.
Projected depth chart
Antone Exum Jr.
The 49ers kept 10 defensive backs after final cuts last season. Barring injuries, the expected group of safeties this year should include Ward, Tartt, Colbert, Moore and Reed. Harris may be on the bubble or needing an injury elsewhere to make it. Ward and Reed have the versatility to play cornerback outside and in the slot. Flannigan-Fowles is a tall, lanky undrafted rookie from Arizona and a candidate for the practice squad.
Friday, July 26: Training camp begins
Saturday, Aug. 31: Final roster cuts
Sunday, Sept. 8: The 2019 regular season opens with a road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10 a.m.).