What should an NFL safety be able to do?
Zone coverage ability is the most important thing, closely followed by a player’s usefulness in run support. Even in zone coverage, some players are better deep (the deep center fielder is a particularly rare breed), while some are much better closer to the line of scrimmage. The smartest coaches utilize their players’ strengths accordingly. Even run support requires slightly different skillsets depending on where a player lines up.
Man coverage ability, especially against tight ends and running backs, is also desirable given those positions’ increasing effectiveness in the passing game, while the ability to blitz is a nice bonus.
In reality, even the best safeties in the league tend to only really excel in three or four of these potential uses. For example, Kam Chancellor in his prime was excellent in short to intermediate zone coverage and in run support, while having good value (but not excelling) in man coverage against tight ends and backs in addition to having some usage as a blitzer. But he wasn’t a deep cover man.
His teammate, Earl Thomas, is the benchmark from which all future deep center field safeties will be judged. Thomas excelled as a zone coverage defender in particular, as well as being a high caliber run defender when working downhill from free safety. His size understandably caused him some limitations in the box and he wasn’t a stud blitzer or man coverage defender (admittedly he was rarely used in the latter role).
But, despite the greatness of the likes of Chancellor and Thomas, teams still want more. They continue to search for the the white lion of NFL safeties - the master of all trades.
The last defensive back to earn serious defensive player of the year consideration was a safety who was arguably breathing such rarified air - the 2015 iteration of Tyrann Mathieu. His impact that year was extraordinary. However, neither Mathieu nor any other NFL safety has matched such an impact since.
Jaquiski Tartt plans on changing that.
Ever since he was a kid, Jaquiski Tartt has been overlooked. In his first love, basketball, he was always the “last guy to get picked.” Back then he asked, “Why not me?”
He attended a smaller school, Samford, having only returned to football as a high school senior at Davidson High School. Tartt has no doubts this has played a major role in his continuing to be overlooked, first in the 2015 NFL Draft, when he thought he could have been a first round pick and the first safety drafted, and then continuing into the NFL.
“I wasn’t a ‘big school’ guy, that’s the process of me being overlooked,” says Tartt. “I haven’t come from a big school, Alabama, LSU or somewhere. I’ve just got to have gone to LSU to get some type of credit.
“A lot of the people don’t look at the film, they look at what they see on TV and politics.”
Tartt watches the other safeties in the league. He knows what people say about Jamal Adams, Tyrann Mathieu (both LSU) and Landon Collins (Alabama), and wonders, “Why not me?”
Instead of being disheartened and giving up, as many a lesser man may, this drives Tartt on. Back in his basketball days, he worked at his craft to ensure he stopped having to feel what it was like to be picked last. That feeling and the determination to overcome it drove him to actively pursue basketball. He faced up to it, rather than quitting and trying something new, eventually becoming a standout on the school basketball team and earning Mobile Press-Register High School Basketball All-Academic Team honors.
When he arrived at Samford, with just one year of organised football under his belt and just one (belated) D1 offer, he didn’t even start straight away. He compared himself to his former high school and current 49ers teammate Jimmie Ward, who was starting as a freshman at a D1 school. As a result, Tartt had major doubts about his future as a footballer: Was he wrong in his own assessment of his abilities? His friend and former teammate was starting at a D1 school, and he was redshirting. How could a player who didn’t start every year at Samford get into the NFL?
But Tartt climbed the mountain. By the end of his career at Samford he was a two time FCS All-American safety, a Senior Bowl standout and would become Samford’s highest drafted player ever, picked 46th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Even during the draft process, Tartt felt overlooked. He was widely pigeonholed as an in-the-box thumper, in lieu of his 6’1, 220 pound build, but he saw himself as more than that. At Samford, he’d played all over the secondary, demonstrating the same sort of versatility that has NFL scouts drooling over FSU’s Derwin James — a man the NFL is eyeing up as a potential master-of-all-trades safety. Frustratingly for Tartt, the tag he wanted to shed then has followed him into the NFL.
“Watch the film,” Tartt urges.
When you do, you’ll see a safety capable of doing anything a safety can be asked to do in 2018, and not only do those things, but excel at them. The 2017 season was Tartt’s best as a pro, something he certainly recognized, stating, “I think I showed I can compete with the best, that I’m the top safety in this league.”
Had he not got hurt, Tartt is convinced he would have been selected to his first Pro Bowl, despite the lack of awareness of him around the league. Making one hundred tackles (a realistic total) will do that.
No single factor can explain why Tartt played so well in 2017, but he believes, “the game slowed down a whole lot [his] third year.” This came courtesy of his playing experience in years one and two, mainly in sub-packages, and starting in relief of Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid when they got injured. In addition to the speeding up his mental processing, the defensive scheme installed by new 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh put less on his and his teammates’ plates mentally.
“The scheme is just simple, everybody has a job, there’s only one job, there’s not too many checks. You just line up and play football. Your job is so simple, you already know what you’ve got, you know your run fit.”
The coalescence of Tartt’s accelerated processing and Saleh’s scheme created a far more decisive player in 2017, someone who could go out each Sunday and just let his footballing ability and athleticism do the talking. His athleticism improved too. Tartt feels his offseason weight loss helped him play faster — he played at around 215 pounds in 2017, which is six pounds less than his listed weight. Not only was he more decisive, he could get from point A to point B more quickly.
But amidst the changes, Tartt also benefited from some continuity. Defensive backs coach, Jeff Hafley was retained from the previous regime, having impressed Saleh and Kyle Shanahan despite the struggles of the 49ers’ defense in his first year on the job under Chip Kelly and Jim O’Neil. Tartt is a firm believer that Hafley has played a major role in his development.
Tartt is effusive in his praise of his position coach, saying, “Coach Hafley does a great job with us. He took my man skills, being able to press and play man to a whole ‘nother level.”
These man skills are a major strength of Tartt’s and part of what makes him unique. Unlike many safeties in the NFL, Tartt looks equally at home in man coverage or zone coverage and he prides himself on his ability to shut down opposition tight ends.
“I want to erase the tight end. If it’s not one of the top tight ends, I don’t mind just covering the running back. But if it’s a top tight end, I plan on erasing him, I plan on him not getting a catch on me.”
The film backs this up - Tartt blankets tight ends when lined up against them in man to man coverage. His press coverage ability, speed, and footwork contributes to that. He’s happy to press them off the line, with the understanding that if he gets beaten by the release (a rare occurrence) he has the transition and recovery speed to prevent a catch. The one touchdown he allowed as the primary coverage player last season, against Jason Witten, still chafes. Though the 49ers aren’t scheduled to play the Cowboys in the regular season, Tartt is keen to secure a rematch with their experienced tight end at some stage.
“I definitely want Jason Witten. I’ll make sure he doesn’t catch a ball when I’m on him.”
As for his ultimate tight end up matchup? According to Tartt, it would be a Super Bowl matchup with New England’s Rob Gronkowski. As he stated, “I live for stopping Gronk on the slant or fade. I dream of winning a Super Bowl like that.”
It’s not just in man coverage where Tartt excels against an offense’s biggest pass catchers. Just ask Jimmy Graham, who experienced the full force of the 49ers’ safety in their Week 2 clash with the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Working down from center field free safety, on a play Tartt read to perfection, he absolutely drilled Graham coming up the seam, dislodging the ball. His interception against Carolina in Week 1 was an absurd display of range and ball skills from the same center field spot. Despite being 215 pounds, Tartt can play the center field role. Finding anyone who can play the spot well is a rarity, but finding a 215-pounder is even more unusual.
Tartt is also a force closer to the line of scrimmage, as a zone cover man, run defender and as a blitzer. His mobility ensures as a seam-flat defender he can essentially cover two men, a receiver heading up the seam and a back releasing into the flats. Furthermore, his tackling in space is much improved, cutting down yards after the catch.
Finally, run defense is consistently impactful. Before going down in Week 9 with an injury, he was tied for fourth in run stops amongst safeties, per PFF. Again, his speed plays a part. Tartt shows a knack for beating blockers with quickness and he is only likely to get better as a run defender. Tartt divulged he had sprains in both wrists all season, meaning he wasn’t anywhere near as effective using his hands taking on blocks as he could have been, instead having to resort to using his shoulders. With his wrists fully healed, Tartt plans on being much more capable setting the edge, getting off blocks and making plays. His blitzing ability will also likely improve when fully healthy.
This versatility as a bigger safety has echoes of former Washington safety Sean Taylor. No safety Tartt’s size should be able to cover ground like Tartt does, and he has the size to mix things up in the box. But Tartt insists he is his own man and that’s how he wants it to be, as much as he respects the quality of the late Washington safety.
“I just want to be better than him, I want people talking about Jaquiski Tartt rather than Sean Taylor when I’m done playing.”
Tartt is as motivated as ever, if not more so going into the 2018 season. This is hardly surprising given he remains firmly out of most discussions about the NFL’s best safeties. This in spite of his abilities as a defensive chess piece. His self-confidence is not arrogance, but founded on a secure knowledge of his own abilities. However, He also demonstrates that he knows he is by no means the finished product. He will be working extensively this offseason on his hand usage when dealing with blockers, in addition to continuing to work on his coverage and tackling. He has received some advice from GM John Lynch on the latter. Moreover, he’s aware that he needs to try and create more turnovers, but there is also an appreciation by Tartt that his strength as a man coverage defender is not conducive to turnover creation — his man is covered and quarterbacks are resultantly avoiding forcing balls in his direction.
He also hasn’t been blessed with the same sort of gifts that some other safeties have received from quarterbacks. They’ve seen overthrown balls landing in the bread basket while Tartt saw potentially interceptable balls tipped at the line of scrimmage when he was jumping routes. He’s continuing to work of course, and will be looking to force more fumbles in 2018, as well as add to his interception tally.
Hard work is much easier in a positive environment, and Tartt seems particularly enthused to be playing and learning alongside teammates he clearly has enormous respect and love for, on a team he’s thoroughly enjoying being a part of. Tartt seems to have little interest in trying to become the highest paid safety in the league (he is entering a contract year), preferring to focus on remaining a 49er for the long haul. The team and its success is more important than money to him.
“I’m all about having peace and happiness. I love this organization, I love the way it’s going. I love what Kyle and John are doing, I love the system, the coaches, I love everything about this organization. The mindset of this organization and the direction of this organization, I just want to be a part of it.”
The idea of sacrificing a little money for the team is not a new one, but it still shows the nature of a man who was reluctant to describe the injuries to Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid that allowed him to play consistently at the start of 2017 as a “blessing in disguise.” Such is his respect for the duo. He preferred to simply call it an opportunity — one he grabbed with two hands and ran with. Tartt seems to be the consummate team player, and someone willing to grind to achieve all he can, in the faith at some point his team will be successful and that he will get the recognition he deserves with it.
This hunger for recognition remains the personal driving force of Tartt’s sporting career, ever since his childhood days playing basketball and being the last player picked. His continuing lack of widespread recognition ensures he retains that chip on his shoulder.
Additionally, aside from being consistently overlooked, Tartt counts his young son as his other major motivation. He wants to “show [him] if his daddy can do it, he can do it.” Fatherhood, as it does with many players, helps add new perspective and an even greater desire to leave a mark.
Indeed, if ‘doing it’ is demonstrating the incredibly rare ability to excel in all facets of safety play, then Tartt certainly did that in 2017. In 2018, playing as part of a secondary featuring multiple All-Pro corner Richard Sherman, with another offseason in the scheme and a return to full health, Tartt expects further improvement and another step to maximizing both his own potential and the potential of a 49ers team where he sees his long term future and for whom the sky is no limit. If that road proves fruitful, who knows what Tartt will be able to show his son he achieved. He just wants to consistently play hard — showing week in, week out, that he’s the best safety in the NFL.
And, when the time comes, whether it’s a discussion about the best safety in the NFL, or voting for honors such as All-Pro, the Pro Bowl, Defensive Player of the Year or even Canton, Jaquiski Tartt wants people to think: why not him?