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49ers positional preview: How confident are you in the safeties heading into the season?

There is a roster battle between Harris and Cyprien

NFL: FEB 02 Super Bowl LIV - Chiefs v 49ers Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

August taught us a lot about the San Francisco 49ers. I’m buying an improved secondary, and you can thank the emergence of the safeties. Jimmie Ward doesn’t get enough credit for how rangy he is, and Jaquiski Tartt doesn’t receive enough credit for how intelligent a player he is. Both starting safeties have battled injuries, and we saw how costly it was in December of 2019 when Tartt went down.

The biggest takeaway from training camp on defense was that the 49ers safety group is in a much better position in the event of an injury to the starters. Tarvarius Moore, Marcell Harris, and Johnathan Cyprien were all impressive during training camp. Moore and Harris have another year under their belt in San Francisco’s scheme and look more comfortable. Cyprien has the experience and was opportunistic when the ball came his way. For all five safeties, the aggression was there, and that’s why they made plays.

It’s all about the starters

As much as the depth has improved, there are noticeable mistakes when the starters weren’t on the field. I still don’t think fans appreciate how well the safeties played last season. Ward was one of the best tacklers in the NFL, with only four missed tackles all season. In coverage, Ward’s success rate was 72%, which was fourth among all defensive backs. I watched the 49ers versus the Cardinals on third downs recently, and Ward had a pass breakup against a slot receiver where he had to guard him on a long-developing, in-breaking route. When Ward is playing as the deep post safety, his range on the team is unmatched.

Not to be outdone, but Tartt’s success rate was 75% in coverage last season, which was the second-best. No defenses back in the NFL allowed fewer yards per pass than Tartt, who allowed two yards per adjusted pass. Yes, you read that right. Tartt only missed five tackles all season. While the knock continues to be how both players don’t generate turnovers, I’d much rather have two sound, smart football players who do their job at a high level than run the risk of giving up a big play gamble to get interceptions. The 49ers make offenses earn everything they get, and the play of the starting safeties is a big reason.

Positional battle: Harris or Cyprien?

These two have both been the recipients of some bad passes from the quarterbacks that landed in their laps for turnovers. There’s nothing wrong with being opportunistic. What’s stood out between Harris and Cyprien is how they both fly around and aggressively come downhill to make plays.

Robert Saleh said Cyprien “has been fantastic” on Sunday. He also mentioned Harris first, but Harris was nursing an ankle injury, and that might be the difference between the two making the initial 53-man roster. Based on the majority of players the 49ers worked out during August, there appears to be a shift towards veterans, which bodes well for Cyprien making the roster. I’d give Cyprien a slight advantage based on practice with Harris landing on the practice squad. Both players have a lot of the same qualities, but my guess is that experience wins out.