The focus on the San Francisco 49ers defense heading into 2018 is on the pass rush and the cornerbacks. The team did not make significant changes to the pass rush, while the secondary continued its overhaul of young talent and the addition of Richard Sherman.
A year ago, the 49ers defense ranked No. 28 in pass defense DVOA. Football Outsiders ranked them No. 27 against No. 1 wide receivers, No. 16 against No. 2 wide receivers, dead last against any other wide receivers, and No. 24 covering running backs in the passing game. While they struggled in all those areas, they found success covering tight ends. FO ranked them fifth against tight ends.
A year ago, the top three players targeted while in primary coverage against an inline tight end were Eric Reid (14 targets), Ray-Ray Armstrong (11), and Reuben Foster (10), according to Pro Football Focus. I would have thought Eli Harold might see more tight end coverage work from the SAM position, but he was next on the list with seven targets. Harold was only targeted 16 times in pass coverage, with it primarily coming against running backs.
With Reid gone, Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt might see some work against tight ends. But my guess is the 49ers use Reuben Foster more in coverage. He has always flashed athleticism, and we saw amazing coverage of Tavon Austin in the Cowboys preseason game. He won’t win all his assignments, but I suspect he’s the guy the 49ers look to for tight end coverage. Fred Warner will be someone to watch as well, particularly these first two weeks while Foster is suspended. When Foster returns, it will be interesting to see if Warner gets a chance to remain a three-down linebacker, or if Malcolm Smith will get base work. For now, Foster is the one likely to be most active all three downs — that is likely enough to get him considerable work covering tight ends.