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49ers draft picks tape study: Jaquiski Tartt

The 49ers invested a second round pick in Samford's Jaquiski Tartt. Does the selection of the small-school strong safety tip plans for a schematic shift in San Francisco's defense? We break down the tape and wonder aloud what could be.

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In quintessential Trent Baalke fashion, when the San Francisco 49ers submitted their draft card in the second round, it contained a name foreign to many of us at a position where we figured we were cool. If you’re anything like me and don’t watch a lot of FCS football in the fall, your first thought was probably something along the lines of: Who in the hell is Jaquiski Tartt?

Beyond his credentials as a starter on the All-Name team, Tartt is a small-school strong safety prospect, playing his college ball at Samford University in Alabama. Like Jimmie Ward before him — and most small-school NFL prospects — when you turn on Tartt’s tape, it’s immediately apparent which player you should be focusing on. Tartt’s size dwarfs that of his teammates and FCS opponents, and he’s on another level athletically compared to everyone else on the field.

Tartt’s small-school pedigree is one of several complicating factors that make him a difficult evaluation for us arm-chair evaluators on the outside. Chief among them is a lack of available game film. — an invaluable resource during this time of year — has just one cutup on Tartt, Samford’s game against Auburn. I was able find one more game, against Chattanooga, but that’s all we’ve got to go on at this point. The other major barrier is the ability to study Tartt’s position on said limited game film. Safeties don’t spend much time on the screen when watching the broadcast camera angles. Every once in a while, you’ll get a helpful replay angle, but judging safties based on the TV tape is an iffy proposition at best.

So as we turn to the tape we do have, consider this more first impression than anything resembling a complete evaluation of Tartt’s game.

Where He Wins

Tartt is at his best as an alley, or in-the-box, run defender where his size and physicality become greater assets. Samford’s defense put Tartt on the hashmarks or over the slot receiver on the majority of snaps I watched, putting him in position to make a lot of plays in run support on the outside.

You’ll see Tartt enter the frame on the upper right as the quarterback is making the option pitch to the running back. Fifteen yards separate Tartt from the back at the time of the pitch, but Tartt’s speed moving downhill (and some help from a poor pitch) allows him to close the gap and make the tackle a yard short of the first-down marker. This is the archetypal Tartt play: moving downhill and filling the alley (space roughly between the hashmarks and the numbers) in a hurry to make a tackle. Some version of this play popped up about a half-dozen times in the two games I watched, and similar examples appeared in the passing game as well.

Chattanooga tosses a swing pass out to the back in the left flat, needing some run after the catch in order to convert the fourth-down attempt. From the left side of the frame this time, Tartt comes into view as the back secures the reception. From here, it’s no different than an outside run. Tartt doesn’t quite get the ballcarrier to the ground, but he impedes his progress enough to get him out of bounds short of the sticks.

Once more, the same traits pop up on this play against Auburn. Tartt is in coverage over the slot receiver at the bottom of the frame, and given how Samford’s secondary reacts after the snap, he appears to be either in man coverage or playing the curl-flat area to that side of the field. He begins his movement up into his area of responsibility right as the ball is snapped and drives on the quick out from the slot receiver. Tartt’s arrival at the wide receiver is in sync with that of the football, and he secures the immediate tackle, coming up with another Defeat on a critical down.

Earlier in that Auburn game, we see Tartt in zone coverage in the middle of the field. He’s able to locate the receiver crossing into his field of vision on the dig route and drive on it as quarterback Nick Marshall appears ready to let the ball loose. Marshall is forced to reset and eventually takes a sack to end the drive.

It’s plays like this in the underneath and intermediate areas where Tartt can win in coverage. When he’s able to keep things in front of him, react, and drive on the ball, he can be effective.

Where He Needs To Improve

Tartt doesn’t appear to be a guy you want to leave in deep coverage very often. His eye discipline is going to need some work, as he has a tendency to stare into the backfield and doesn’t always locate routes that aren’t square within his field of vision.

From the endzone view on the replay, you can see Tartt rotate to the deep-third in the middle of the field in Samford’s Cover 3 defense. Tartt doesn’t gain much depth as he’s mirroring the quarterback’s rollout and looks to be tracking the out-breaking receiver from the slot. He doesn’t locate the outside receiver on the post route until it’s too late, and because he didn’t get any depth in his drop, all he can do is bail and play catch-up as the ball sails over his head to a wide-open receiver. A better pass from an NFL-caliber quarterback and that’s six points.1

Tartt also struggles taking proper angles to the football at times, leading to some missed tackles that he should probably make.

Chattanooga’s quarterback keeps the ball on the read option, and after a moment of hesitation, Tartt makes his move towards the ballcarrier. Tartt should make this tackle, but his overshoots on his angle rather than attacking that inside hip, leaving him vulnerable to the cutback. There were a few other snaps where Tartt took a poor angle to the ball in the Chattanooga game, but he was able to overcome it and still make the play, mostly because he was just a better athlete than the players he was up against. If those type of plays happen on Sundays, NFL skill position players will make him look silly.

Even when his path the ballcarrier wasn’t a problem, he had some issues with missed tackles, particularly in the Auburn game.

Tartt starts in the deep middle of the field. Once he diagnoses run, Tartt makes is way into the box. With the back already in the grasp of another defender, Tartt is in position to make the stop after a minimal gain. Instead, he misses the tackle and knocks his teammate off in the process, freeing the back up to get extra yards after contact.

I counted two additional missed tackles in that game and another where he barely managed to recover from a poor angle by diving and knocking the running back out of bounds. It’s hardly a large enough sample to conclude he has a legitimate tackling problem, but it will be something to keep an eye on early in the season.

The Bottom Line

We probably have less information to work with on Tartt than any of the 49ers draftees, at least among the selections in top half of the draft. He fits the get bigger, get faster mantra of this draft class. But many will see Tartt as simply a depth option early on and a future replacement for Bethea in a year or two. However, the 49ers need only look to a similar player within the division to find a potential day-one role for the rookie safety.

The closest athletic comparison for Tartt is Deone Bucannon — the first-round safety taken by the Cardinals last year — and from what I’ve seen from Tartt thus far, his game is similar as well. With only one competent inside linebacker (Kevin Minter) and four solid players at safety (Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson, Tyrann Mathieu, and Bucannon), the Cardinals played a lot of "big nickel," lining Bucannon up as a linebacker. Johnson, Jefferson, and Bucannon all saw at least 64 percent of Arizona’s defensive snaps, and Mathieu only failed to hit that mark (he played 40.4 percent of snaps) because of the three games he missed due to injury. The versatility provided by Bucannon and Mathieu made the package very effective for the Cardinals.

Now, as we look at the post-draft roster, San Francisco finds themselves in a similar situation. Inside linebacker is no longer an overwhelming strength after the Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retirements, and safety is flush with four highly-touted players that need to be on the field. There’s a reasonable chance Baalke & Co. view the versatility provided by their safety quartet as the best way to replace their missing inside linebackers. Ward will continue to handle slot corner duties, but is also a willing run defender. Tartt has the size and enough athleticism to match-up with most tight ends, but can also play in the box as a de facto linebacker. Reid and Bethea are among the better all-around safety duos in football, and should continue to do their thing behind them.

We won’t know how everything shakes out until some time in September, but I’m more intrigued by the possibilities for this defense after Tartt’s selection.

  1. Tartt was able to track the receiver down from behind and make the tackle thanks to the underthrown pass.