49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ fortune could run out if they do not add a play-making safety to the roster before the season starts. San Francisco’s roster has several star-caliber players, but the defense has a few glaring holes. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have their work cut out for them in choosing what's the biggest need at 61 overall.
We look at three reasons why the 49ers need to draft a safety with their first pick.
1) The current safeties group grade is a C-
Jimmie Ward has an argument as the best defender on the team, and he skews the position group's grade by himself. Ward shuffling positions early in his 49er tenure have molded him into a jack of all trades. However, Ward is entering his 8th season, and he turns 31 in July.
George Odom, Tarvarius Moore, and Talanoa Hufanga have all shown that they can make plays but lack the consistency to start in the NFL. Moore may have the biggest upside of the three as he can play both safety positions and holds up in coverage. On the contrary, Moore will have to show the same explosiveness after tearing his Achilles last June.
2) Quarters coverage puts heavy stress on safeties
Ryans and Robert Saleh both made strides of playing less Cover 3 and incorporated aggressive defenses while playing more quarters coverage concepts. Both Cover 4 and Cover 6 tend to show up in early downs in Ryans’s game scripts.
Quarters coverage helps eliminate vertical plays but puts heavy stress on the safeties. Safeties are put in a run-pass conflict, and there’s the possibility of having to take the #2 WR down the seam with no reroute because of the flat dropper.
According to Sharp Football Analysis, San Francisco surrendered the fifth most explosive passing plays (64) in the league last season. Sharp Football identifies a pass of 20 yards or more as explosive. These explosive plays were not a direct correlation to the quarter's calls last year, but it’s something to keep in mind with the seam being vulnerable in Cover 3,4 and 6.
3) San Francisco’s Super Bowl window is closing
Deebo Samuel’s trade request is the biggest problem in San Francisco. At first, it felt like an overreaction, and I thought it’s no way he could be traded. However, his return looks less likely by the day. Samuel's departure could potentially crush the idea of the Niners having a vertical passing attack this season.
The Niners have had a feared defense for the last three seasons. That can change if Jaquiski Tartt’s replacement is a downgrade. Tartt may not have been All-Pro caliber, but he defended the run, held up in coverage, and made several touchdown saving tackles last year.
The cornerback room improved, but the nickel corner position remains a mystery. These two secondary voids leave me uneasy with San Francisco’s defense after they surrendered 64 big plays through the air last year.
Fans and analysts have clamored for the Niners to bolster the interior offensive line heading into this year's NFL Draft. After Lynch told the media he was unsure of his return Monday, Alex Mack's future is in question. Center is now a top priority, and we will see how early they take one.