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49ers rookies hit the field

Marcell Harris and Jullian Taylor finally get some snaps.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

During the preseason, I wrote a piece on Jullian Taylor in which he dominated the Cowboys reserves. Being a seventh round pick, it appeared the 49ers found a diamond in the rough. Yet once the season started he was never activated until two weeks ago. Marcell Harris, another late round pick (round six), was dealing with rehab of an Achilles injury and started the season on injured reserve. He was eventually activated once deemed healthy. I’m sure drafting injured players brought up those bad Trent Baalke memories we’ve been trying to escape for a few seasons now. With the season winding down it appears the 49ers are starting to take a look at some of their picks in real live game action.

In looking at Taylor’s draft profile and scouting reports, he has good size and strength, but durability was a concern after missing two college seasons due to lower body injuries. Harris’ profile rings a similar bell, he has the prototypical size for the safety position, good closing speed, but again, limited playing time due to a lower body injury.

We’ll look at some tape from last week’s game versus Seattle. There was some good and some bad, but overall I think both players fit a role. We will start with Jullian Taylor.

Taylor has good strength but struggled to disengage from blockers versus Seattle. He lacks hand technique, and doesn’t really have any “moves” to defeat blockers. His only technique currently is the bull rush. In the clip below he runs right into the offensive tackle, gets stone-walled and the play goes on, ineffective.

Also as a rookie, he lacks overall play awareness. In the clip below, the Seahawks run a jet sweep right by Taylor. In the future I hope to see him gain more experience and start to recognize plays and formations with anticipation.

When he can get around blocks, Taylor is a disrupter. He’s a solid tackler, even though he doesn’t close the deal on this next clip. Most of the game, if he got his hands on someone they were going down. The challenge for him will be disengaging blockers and making plays consistently. We also get a sneak peek at Harris coming in to finish the play off here. More on him later.

One thing I can say about Marcell Harris is that he never shies away from contact. He’s a physical tackler — to me he plays more like a linebacker than a safety. Most of the game versus Seattle he played down in the box. There are some successful safety/linebacker hybrids, like Deone Buchanan in Arizona, or Mark Barron in Los Angeles. Both players were safeties in college and eventually made the move to linebacker permanently with their respective teams. His aggressive play comes with pros and cons as we will see below.

Let’s start with the bad. Harris needs more work on his coverage skills. He also needs to tame his aggression. While an in-the-box safety needs to be fierce he also needs to be smart and not overreact. In the play below, Harris is so keyed on the run, he’s nearly 3 yards into the backfield before he realizes it’s a play action pass, and it goes for a big gain. There were several plays like this from Harris on Sunday. I hope to see him improve his awareness in the coming weeks.

What I love about Harris is his “contact courage.” I stole that phrase from Donte Whitner. He used it several times in describing Ahkello Witherspoon’s issues with closing and tackling during his very candid Instagram film review. I wonder if Whitner would love some of these clips below.

We have a cameo from Taylor in somewhat of a spy role, watching Russell Wilson as he breaks contain. Once the ball is dumped Harris quickly closes and tackles the runner. Harris looks stiff and unnatural back pedaling into his zone, but once the ball is delivered he changes to attack mode instantly.

The following play was a 3rd and 2. Harris does a good job of sticking his nose in and getting to the ball carrier. The runner is stopped before the first down.

In our next clip, Harris shows his ability to shoot the gap and make a play. Again he plays more like a linebacker than a safety. I feel like he might be a little more physical at the point than Jaquiski Tartt, but Tartt plays under control and is much better in coverage than Harris. I could see Harris being moved to a linebacker type of role if the team gains some depth at the safety positions, similar to Eric Reid last season.

Versus the Denver Broncos I anticipate both players will continue to get snaps with the first team. Harris could possibly start again given the injuries in the secondary. The Broncos offense is not as formidable as Seattle, but they do have a solid running game. They currently rank ninth in offensive efficiency, and 17th in points per game. In comparison, the 49ers defense ranks 25th in defensive efficiency and 29th in points allowed per game. Denver will be without their leading receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, which will help our defense crowd the line. Nonetheless, I’m sure the Broncos staff already has their weak links picked out and intend to exploit them. The challenge on Sunday will also be offensively. Can Nick Mullens and Jeff Wilson lead the 49ers to victory against a highly ranked Broncos defense? Can we look forward to Dante Pettis building on his solid performance from the last two weeks? I’ll also look forward to Harris and Taylor building on their current NFL resumes. Go Niners!