The 49ers do have a lot of young "talent" in the defensive secondary, however, a lot of this talent has yet to be accessed at the NFL level. I understand that San Francisco will probably make an upgrade or two when free agency begins. That said, they are going to have to rely a lot on young players and hope a couple of them take that next step.
Confidence level among 49er fans in regards to the secondary isn't incredibly high right now and that is well warranted at this point. There were a lot of lackluster efforts and poor individual performances last season.
This morning I am going to take a look at the 49ers young secondary corp and try to figure out which player may be primed for a breakout season.
Entering his 3rd year in the NFL, Dason Goldson had a breakout 2009 campaign. He compiled 94 Tackles, 3 Forced Fumbles, 2 Sacks, 4 Interceptions, 6 Passes Defended and a TD. To many, it wasn't a huge surprise because the talent was there in regards to the former 4th round pick. However, Goldson regressed a great deal in 2010 and is set to be a free agent. There is a strong possibility that San Francisco will not retain his services.
If not, the 49ers will look on the open market for a free agent safety to take over. Even with the addition of a veteran San Francisco will be relying on a young player to start at the other safety position, whichever it is.
Taylor Mays: We all know the story. Highly touted heading into the 2009 draft, Mays was considered a top 10 pick. Pete Carroll talked him into returning to USC for his senior season, which ended up costing Mays millions of dollars. He fell to the 2nd round of the 2010 draft because of issues with his coverage ability. Pete Carroll, the individual that cost Mays a chance at the 1st round, passed up on his former player going with Earl Thomas instead.
The issues were even greater than that during Mays' Senior season at USC. The Trojans utilized him in a way that did not play to his strengths. Mays played center field and was off the ball way too much. He had previously built a reputation for being a hard hitter who had a knack for the ball. Instead, USC decided he would be better utilized playing 10 yards off the ball. Well, this didn't work out too well and his stock plummeted.
Mays cam on incredibly strong in week 4 of the 2010 season against the Atlanta Falcons. He recorded 11 tackles, 9 solo and scored a special teams touchdown on a blocked punt. His athleticism was ever apparent during that game, and it seemed as if Mays was fully ready to excel as a rookie. Over the next four games Mays hit the field as a starter and apparently took off. And, in a week 8 match up against the Denver Broncos showed real good instincts and improved coverage skills in the defensive backfield. However, we did have issues with taking the wrong angle on tackles and was beaten in coverage a couple times. Those are mistakes that you expect from a rookie, but the 49er coaching staff didn't see it this way.
Over the final 8 games of the season Mays played sparingly and recorded a total of 6 tackles. Some of that lack of playing time had to do with his inexperience on the playing field and lackluster coverage skills. However, I am under the belief that Mike Singletary played veterans during the stretch run in order to save his job.
When playing a young players, especially in the secondary you have to take your bumps and bruises. Not every player is going to come in and be an all-pro level performer like Earl Thomas and Troy Polamalu. Instead, there are going to be issues with game preparedness, offensive scheme recognition, coverage ability, and angle taking on tackles. It is really hard to avoid that.
So, San Francisco's coaching staff decided to let Mays sit on the bench instead of earning extremely important playing time as a rookie. This was a huge mistakes and could have set him back a great deal in his progression. There are reports that Mays has been working with a few different former safeties and has undergone an incredibly difficult off-season strength and conditioning program. This only promises to help him improve in his Sophomore season.
Reggie Smith: Smith played corner in college and was a tweener heading into the draft, this caused him to be available to San Francisco in the 3rd round a few years back. Since, Smith has showed a great deal of athleticism and talent. However, this hasn't equated to a great deal of on field success.
He has shown flashes at the strong safety position, but hasn't been able to stay on the field consistently. There remain issues with coverage ability and play recognition. He seems to be late in understanding routes and doesn't hit the angles quick enough. This has been a major issue for Smith during his San Francisco 49er career, however, there is hope that this can be fixed under the tutelage of Ed Donatell.
We have seen the last of Smith at the corner position as his focus has switched completely to safety since becoming a 49er. Continued progression in understand routes, scheme, and angles will only aid in his ability to make a consistent impact as a starter. I am just not that confident that Smith will take that next step this season. Smith needs to see more time as a nickel/roving safety before we can have the confidence in him as a starter.
Tarrell Brown: He has a really solid 2009 season in my opinion but regressed to a point in 2010. I think we are past the point of believing that Brown will be anything more than a nickel or #4 corner in the NFL. He doesn't have the coverage ability necessary to cover other teams top receivers on the outside. Additionally, Brown has struggled a great deal in the slot. It seems that he expects over the top coverage when it doesn't come and allows the receiver to hit the soft part of the field.
I do think that Brown could possibly be a solid nickel corner in the NFL, he just doesn't have the technique or skill to be much more than that at this point.
Curtis Taylor: Physically, Taylor has the ability to be a solid safety in the NFL. However, he hasn't had the opportunity nor has he showed the ability for that to translate to the field. Coming out of Louisiana State, Taylor was a solid prospect. However, a sub par final season of college dropped his draft stock.
Unlike others, I am pretty high on Taylor. He was incredibly raw coming out of college and was left to play special teams once he joined the 49ers. I see a hard hitting safety with above average coverage skills. He just needs to get the chance and put it all together. As a 7th round pick from 2009, Taylor still has value on the 49ers roster.
Chris Culliver and Curtis Holcomb: I don't expect either rookie to make an immediate impact in the secondary. If they do it will be because of a lack of performance from the players above them, or because one completely shocks the franchise in training camp.
To say both players are projects would be an understatement. I see a lot of upside in Culliver and think he can grow into a real solid starter in the NFL, however, I don't know enough about Holcomb to suggest that. Considering he should have been an undrafted free agent, we should probably treat him like that this pre-season. That means, don't expect too much from him outside of special teams; if that.
Conclusion: I think that it is obvious Taylor Mays has the best "breakout" ability of all the young players in San Francisco's secondary. He has the athletic and physical ability to be a star in the defensive backfield. I expect Ed Donatell to work with Mays in great depth during training camp. Right now, Mays may be seeing a lot of playing time because of the lack of depth at the safety position for San Francisco. This is another reason why he could be primed for a breakout season. You cannot improve on your game if you are not given the ability to.
A dark horse candidate to take really big strides in 2011 could be Curtis Taylor. I know I might get a lot of slack for that considering he hasn't shown anything. However, I love his physical presence and above average man-man skills. At least, on tape.