Each year, it seems like the 49ers continue to find diamonds in the rough with late-round defensive backs. Last season, it was third round corner Ahkello Witherspoon and seventh round safety Adrian Colbert who impressed. In this year’s draft, GM John Lynch added versatile defensive back D.J. Reed in the fifth round and safety Marcell Harris in the sixth round.
Due to injuries to corner K’Waun Williams and Colbert, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had no choice but to lean on Reed in the slot and Harris in the strong safety spot. Against the Broncos, both players shined and started to make a case for a starting job — even when the incumbents return.
Reed earned himself a game ball with his performance against Denver, racking up 12 tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Harris was equally as impressive, filling the stat sheet with seven tackles and two for loss.
Early in the first quarter, Reed shows off his tackling ability from the slot corner position. The ex-Kansas State defender is able to shed off the block and tackle Broncos’ running back Phillip Lindsay for only a four-yard gain. For corners, sound tackling is an important skill and Reed seems to show that from the get go.
Once again, it’s the exact same play, with Reed lined up in the same spot. This time, he’s able to skirt through the blockers and drop Lindsay for a three-yard loss. Shooting the gap and stopping the run is a huge priority for defenders on the edge and for Reed to singlehandedly bring down Lindsay is fantastic.
Now, let’s take a look at Reed in his primary job — covering the slot receiver. Matched up against rookie wideout Daesean Hamilton, Reed is able close immediately on him and make the tackle after only a gain of one yard.
Now for the other rookie defensive back, Harris, who’s sees the wide receiver reverse play start to happen before it actually does and then shoots the gap for the tackle. That’s great instincts for a rookie who missed a majority of the season. Harris is able to drop the speedy Sutton for a one-yard loss.
Here is Reed’s best play of the afternoon. On a slot blitz, Broncos’ quarterback Case Keenum recognized that Reed is coming off the edge and points it out to running back Devontae Booker, who misses the block. Reed sacks Keenum and forces the ball out, creating a turnover and a subsequent short field for the 49ers’ offense.
Once again, Harris is lined up right near the line of scrimmage, staring at the running back in the backfield. Keenum turns and hands it off to backup Royce Freeman, who gets immediately taken down by Harris for a loss on the play. Harris makes the perfect read and is able to blow past the blockers to take Freeman down.
Now in coverage, Harris shows off his closing speed to the offensive player. Covering the running back out of the backfield, Harris sees the play develop and is able to make the solo tackle immediately.
Both Reed and Harris showed off their ability to read the plays, make solo tackles in space, cover guys in space and also bring down running backs. For rookie defenders, there’s not much more you can ask than for effort and energy on every play. For Harris and Reed to be able to have successful afternoons is a bright sign for the 49ers’ defensive future.