The San Francisco 49ers are making big changes to their secondary this year, and expectations are relatively low outside the Bay Area. There is a lot of talent in the mix for the five roles (two corners, two safeties, one nickel), but a lot of inexperience and new roles.
The team is moving Eric Reid from free safety to strong safety and Jimmie Ward from cornerback to free safety. Rashard Robinson is expected to take over one cornerback role, while Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon are competing for the other role. K’Waun Williams was brought in to compete with Will Redmond for the nickel back role.
Pro Football Focus is going through each position group and ranking out all 32 teams. On Tuesday, they got to secondaries. They ranked the 49ers No. 25. Teams behind them included the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, and Philadelphia Eagles.
PFF had this to say about the 49ers new-look secondary:
With little depth at cornerback, 2017 third round pick Ahkello Witherspoon could have a shot at winning a Week 1 starting job. His 14 total passes defensed last season ranked fourth among all defensive back prospects. Opposite him will likely be Rashard Robinson, who outside of rough outings against Tampa Bay in Week 7 and Seattle in Week 17 (he combined to give up 11 catches and three touchdowns on 13 targets) gave up just 11 grabs on 31 throws into his coverage. The 49ers will need more consistency at safety from Jimmie Ward, who amassed a career-high seven total pass defenses last season but also yielded five scores into his coverage.
Depth is a big question mark all around the secondary. Jaquiski Tartt is the most proven backup, and he is almost exclusively behind Eric Reid. Lorenzo Jerome has stood out as a ball-hawk safety, and stands a decent shot of claiming a role, particularly if he shines on special teams. At safety, the biggest question is how Ward performs switching back to a role he hasn’t played since college.
The 49ers got really young, really quick at cornerback this offseason, releasing Tramaine Brock and making the move with Ward. Ahkello Witherspoon has the length they want in press-favored cornerbacks, but he is still a rookie. Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson are his competition for a starting job, but I could see an extensive rotation through training camp and the preseason. With a new coaching staff in place, I am intrigued to see how quickly some of these younger players claim starting roles, or at least significant roles.