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Three 49ers with the most to prove on defense

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There are a couple of starters on defense that have something to prove in 2020

Carolina Panthers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There are a few players on the San Francisco 49ers that are on the rise with a bright future ahead of them. Players like Emmanuel Moseley and Dre Greenlaw figure to be in the Niners plans for years to come. While a handful of other players are running out of chances and 2020 could be their final opportunity to make an impression on John Lynch and company. To avoid “picking” on the same couple of players, I’ll change it up and throw in two starters on the list. We have to start with you know who, though.

CB Ahkello Witherspoon

I left Solomon Thomas off because, at this point, any contribution would be welcomed, and we know who he is as a player. I’m not sure we can say the same about Witherspoon, who has all of the talent in the world. Witherspoon lacked confidence after he returned from injury. Once he was placed back into the starting lineup, ‘Spoon was playing to “not make a mistake,” which, as a cornerback, is the worst mindset to have.

Training camp will be huge for Ahkello. Being benched twice in a season is tough to recover from. Witherspoon will have an opportunity to start, but he’ll need to outplay Moseley and the rest of the challengers. Unfortunately for ‘Spoon, he’ll need to outplay them thoroughly and leave no doubts in the coaches’ mind that he’s the guy. This season is a contract year for Ahkello, which means it’s now or never.

S Jaquiski Tartt

On the field, it’s tough to poke holes in Tartt’s game. He’s a sound tackler and doesn’t mind mixing it up in the run game. Tartt is an aware player, and he doesn’t allow the big play as a deep safety. In the regular season, the longest reception on Tartt was 18 yards. We saw his value in December when Tartt broke his ribs against the Ravens.

This is a big year for Tartt as he enters the final year of his deal. Tartt played a career-high in snaps in 2020. The closest he’s ever come to playing 856 snaps in a season was Tartt’s rookie year when he played 720. Tartt has to prove that he can stay healthy in consecutive seasons. Based on the 49ers’ offseason approach, they’re counting on Tartt’s health. In a dream world, next March, we’re talking about if the 49ers can afford to keep Tartt.

LB Kwon Alexander

Alexander was everything and more than the Niners wanted in their free-agent linebacker during the first half of 2019. Kwon brought energy, speed, and instincts in the passing game that helped take the defense to an elite level. Then, a month before Tartt’s injury, Alexander tears his pec. That opened the door for Greenlaw, who took full advantage of his opportunity.

Alexander returned for the playoffs wearing a harness that limited his mobility. It was evident Kwon was affected, and that showed up in his tackling. Alexander figures to start in 2020, but he has to earn it. The speedy linebacker needs to show he’s fully recovered and that his game isn’t stagnant. It’s safe to assume Dre will improve, but will Kwon?

Lastly,—and the main reason he’s on this list— Kwon’s contract. Let’s say Alexander has a mediocre season. The 49ers can cut him in next offseason with a post-June 1 designation and save $13.3 million in cap space, while only eating $3.1 million in dead money. Alexander must prove he’s worth the big contract the 49ers gave him in March of 2019. He doesn’t need to be the second coming of Patrick Willis. If Alexander plays as he did during the first half of last year, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.