On Wednesday, I wrote about slot corner becoming an increasingly pressing need for the 49ers following some of their departures in free agency, and it didn’t take long for San Francisco to go out and address it with a signing that should help them fill that void.
The Niners signed Isaiah Oliver to a two-year contract. While terms of the deal have yet to be disclosed, it is a low-risk movie with potentially huge rewards for the San Francisco secondary.
A second-round pick of the Falcons in 2018, Oliver has started just eight games over the last two seasons, having suffered a torn ACL in Week 4 of the 2021 campaign.
Yet, it is easy to see why the 49ers were suitably intrigued by the play he has produced when he has been healthy, with Oliver an excellent fit for a defensive backfield that made impressive strides last year.
Ascending into his prime
It is a common trope at this time of year to use a player’s age to justify a signing. Yet, it will certainly have factored into the 49ers’ decision to sign Oliver.
He is approaching his age-27 campaign, meaning he is heading into what should be his prime years, following five seasons in the league in which he has often performed at a very high level.
After only allowing 4.9 yards per target and a passer rating of 89.3 in 2021 before his season-ending injury, Oliver gave up 6.4 yards per target and a passer rating of 76.2 across 12 games in 2022.
Oliver did not give up a single touchdown last season, with his stingy play in coverage, in part because of a combination of a play style that matches that of the 49er defense and a physical profile that may allow the Niners to be more malleable in the secondary.
At a little over 6ft and 201 pounds, Oliver brings size to the nickel corner position and does not lack speed despite his well-built frame.
Oliver ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds during the pre-draft process, and it is clear he still possesses strong pace even in the wake of a serious knee injury.
Keep the outliers, if you run over 4.55 in the 40, you're eliminated. So without bending the rules too much the CBs expected to be drafted that meet the threshold would be:— KP (@KP_Show) March 15, 2018
The physical frame is perhaps the key thing with Isaiah Oliver imo. He gives the 49ers a body type they haven't had in the slot, not counting safeties, and still has good speed. pic.twitter.com/81MYUWWm9j— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 16, 2023
He is a corner who leans on his physical traits, using his 33.5-inch arms – which put him in the 96th percentile for his position – to disrupt receivers and make plays at the catch point. Oliver registered seven pass breakups last season and had a career-high 11 in 2019.
A slot corner of Isaiah Oliver's size against Greg Dortch seems a little unfair. Oliver using his frame and and his long arms again here to disrupt the in-breaker. pic.twitter.com/RArhKnnbxx— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 16, 2023
Oliver utilizes his acceleration to recover separation quickly and expediently transition out of his backpedal when breaking to the football.
His speed in getting downhill has been a key feature of his play in run support, an area in which Oliver has continually excelled, logging 203 tackles during his career despite only completing two full seasons.
But it is how his skill set could facilitate greater diversity in the 49er secondary that is the most interesting aspect of Oliver’s signing.
Potentially crucial freedom
Oliver will likely compete with Samuel Womack III, the 49ers’ fifth-round pick from last year, for the starting nickel job, and his experience and athletic gifts may give him the inside track.
Indeed, Oliver’s mix of size and speed means he has the capability to defend quicker slot receivers as well as tight ends and ‘power slots’ – bigger receivers deployed inside who have become an increasingly prevalent part of the modern game.
Isaiah Oliver winning at the catch point against Chris Godwin. pic.twitter.com/LN4I4y2d2K— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 16, 2023
As such, there is the possibility the 49ers could leave Oliver on the field even in situations where teams attack the San Francisco defense with their base personnel, freeing up the Niners’ safeties to be used in other capacities.
Regardless of whether Oliver or Womack wins the starting role, the 49ers could well rely on both to help them defend the slot, perhaps leaning on Oliver against more physically imposing receivers and using Womack against shiftier slot weapons if they believe such an approach would be advantageous.
It would obviously be a stretch to suggest Oliver’s signing carries the same level of importance as that of Javon Hargrave, who plugs San Francisco’s biggest need on the defensive side of the ball and gives the Niners a top-tier interior pass rusher.
But the freedom and flexibility Oliver will offer them in the secondary is key. The 49ers aren’t faced with the prospect of it being ‘Womack or bust’ at nickel, and they now have a body type in the slot that better equips them to defend where the game is going in that area of the field.
There is some projection involved here. The 49ers are betting Oliver will be even better two seasons removed from his ACL tear. But if that gamble quickly proves a wise one, the two-year contract provides the Niners with the opportunity to talk extension next offseason and potentially nail down a medium-term starter at a critical position.