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Diminutive Tre Hodges-Tomlinson could be the key building block for the 49ers secondary

His size is an issue, but Tomlinson otherwise ticks all the boxes.

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NFL: MAR 02 Scouting Combine Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m not a tall man. I don’t know my exact height, I’m probably 5’8”, maybe 5’9.” In the past, out of some bizarre pride, I might have told people I was 5’10”, perhaps even 5’11”, but that is just flat out not true.

I’m average height. Like most of the population, those who make it in the NFL tower over me.

As such, I’ve always gravitated towards rooting for players who overcome not being blessed with tremendous verticality and hulking physiques to make it to the league.

And it is just so happens that there is a prospect in this year’s draft who appears destined to be selected on day two who possesses a physical profile — at least in terms of height and weight — that most of us can relate to.

Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who has recently said he wishes to go by Tre Tomlinson, is diminutive by the standards of NFL starting outside cornerbacks.

Tomlinson measures in at 5’8 and 178 pounds, not measurables teams looking to add to their cornerback room usually love. He’s a little on the small side even for a slot corner, and Tomlinson barely played in the slot during his collegiate career at TCU. Just 66 snaps, in fact, between 2020 and 2022, according to Pro Football Focus.

He played a whopping 794 snaps as an outside corner last season as TCU made it all the way to the National Championship Game.

While the Horned Frogs’ Cinderella story did not have the fairy tale ending, there’s reason to believe Tomlinson’s tale, one of an extreme outlier at the corner position, could be one that concludes with him starring at the NFL level.

For all his supposed deficiencies in terms of frame, Tomlinson is an outstanding athlete, one who possesses 4.4 speed and who posted an 83rd percentile vertical leap and a 93rd percentile broad jump, according to Mock Draftable.

That athleticism played a big role in Tomlinson racking up a remarkable 36 pass breakups — 15 of which were recorded in his final season — and five interceptions. The 2022 campaign also, per PFF, saw him allow a passer rating of 42.5.

Tomlinson’s coverage ability and on-ball production will be enough for one team to overlook his short stature and slight frame but, if those concerns cause him to fall to the third round, then a 49ers team in need of secondary depth should give serious thought to adding him to their cornerback room.

While it may be difficult to compare Tomlinson to other players as a coverage defender given his unconventional build for the position he plays, the aggressive manner in which he plays the run and the screen game is reminiscent of a former 49ers nickel corner.

Tomlinson is a fierce run defender who plays well above his size, getting downhill quickly, showing the ability to slip blocks at the second level and deliver forceful hits akin to those K’Waun Williams — known as ‘the shark’ — used to dish out during his time with the Niners.

The speed Tomlinson displayed in his pre-draft workout, with his 4.41 40-yard dash time including a 10-yard split of 1.5 seconds, is evident in how quickly breaks from a deep alignment to consistently blow up screen passes and turn them into negative plays.

Such speed is a critical component of Tomlinson’s play in coverage, where he blends it with the physicality that defines his play against the run and hugely impressive fluidity of movement.

In man to man, Tomlinson showcases admirable patience in staying square and does not rush to turn his hips. Both his backpedal and his hip turn are extremely smooth, and Tomlinson also demonstrates the stop-start quickness to guard against double moves with consistent success.

When he cannot rely solely on his fluidity to stay in phase, Tomlinson uses his hands. He is not afraid to mix it up with receivers who possess a substantial size advantage, his physicality often putting him at risk of drawing flags.

Though his style of play has its downsides, there is no doubting the positive impact of his approach, and his athleticism, at the catch point.

Tomlinson does a superb job of crowding receivers and getting his hands inside the catch radius of receivers to break up passes, with his incredible performance in the vertical leap no real surprise when you watch tape of him going up to compete for seemingly any ball regardless of where it is thrown.

His prowess at the catch point is partially a consequence of the expedience he displays in getting in position to make such plays, especially when working in zone coverage.

Tomlinson plays with excellent eyes to the ball in the zone and is extremely quick to trigger towards the ball. With the explosiveness, he shows when defending screens obvious when he works downhill from zone, Tomlinson excels in transition from his pedal and regularly gets a great drive on the ball.

The aptitude he has displayed in zone will obviously appeal to a 49ers team that, despite diversifying its coverages somewhat in 2022, still primarily dealt in quarters last season.

After making Charvarius Ward their big-ticket free agent signing last year, Tomlinson would also give the Niners another corner with significant experience playing on an island in man, albeit at a lower level.

In his coverage flexibility, his ball skills and his aggressive run defense, Tomlinson ticks all the boxes for a 49ers corner.

Yet, there is still the lingering concern of his size. For all his obvious plus points, there is no denying taking a corner of his build whose experience is primarily on the outside is a substantial risk.

But it is a risk the 49ers are well-positioned to make. They likely have their starting trio at corner in Ward, Deommodore Lenoir and free-agent signing Isaiah Oliver — who will be expected to take over the slot corner role after arriving as a free agent — meaning Tomlinson would have the chance to develop and find his best spot.

He may be an outlier, but the smart money is on Tomlinson finding where he fits and thriving at the highest level. Tomlinson could defy the doubters and make the jump as an outside corner, or perhaps he might adapt to the slot successfully. The 49ers, were they to land him, may even look to cross-train him at both positions and give their secondary more versatility.

The draft is as much about building on your strengths as it is about addressing needs. San Francisco’s starting corners represent a strength for the 49ers, but there is a clear need to upgrade the reserves, which at present are headlined by Samuel Womack III and Ambry Thomas. Tomlinson does not have the typical frame for his position, but he could still represent a large building block that helps the 49ers construct a deep and malleable secondary.