Just over a week out from the day when the 49ers are scheduled to make their first pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, it is still arguably an exercise in futility trying to predict in which direction they will go. Save for perhaps the right tackle position and kicker, there is not a spot on the roster where San Francisco needs to find a starter.
Yet, there are several positions where the Niners would benefit from having a succession plan in place, with safety foremost among them.
Tashaun Gipson returned for one more year after a hugely impressive first season with San Francisco in which he recorded five interceptions. However, free safety Gipson openly spoke about the possibility of retirement before re-signing, and the 32-year-old cannot be considered even a medium-term solution.
Finding a long-term answer from what is seen as an underwhelming safety class is no guarantee. And, given the depth at cornerback, there is a case to be made that the 49ers would be better off prioritizing that spot and solidifying their still shaky depth in a premium position.
Though the 49ers do not have a pick in this draft until the 99th overall selection in the third round, they may well still be in a position to land an excellent candidate to be Gipson’s heir apparent.
San Francisco hosted Penn State’s Ji’Ayir Brown for a top-30 visit. And, while he may not have the physical profile of a top safety prospect — his pre-draft workout earned him a Relative Athletic Score of 5.95 out of 10 — his college career revealed a player with the skill set to excel in the NFL at a position that is increasingly important though still undervalued at the highest level.
It has become a prerequisite for NFL safeties to play the deep middle and the slot effectively. Brown ticks all the right boxes in terms of his versatility, having played in single-high and two-high coverages also spending time in the slot and in the box.
Per Pro Football Focus, Brown played 345 snaps as a deep safety in 2022. He spent 157 snaps in the box and 111 in the slot. And it is in that deep capacity where Brown undoubtedly does his best work.
Brown’s main asset is his eyes. He reads the quarterback and the routes of receivers in front of him exceptionally well from deep. The level of awareness with which he plays is most evident in zone coverage, with Brown consistently displaying the read-and-react ability to break on throws before the quarterback has even drawn his arm back.
When breaking downhill, Brown transitions extremely quickly, enabling him to fly to the ball and make physical hits at the catch point.
Very interested to see Ji'Ayir Brown taking a top-30 visit with the 49ers. He was one of the first safeties I've watched and still think he's the best fit for them.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 19, 2023
Love how quickly he gets downhill from depth and delivers a punishing hit. pic.twitter.com/DFoXKtostE
His 40-yard dash time of 4.65 seconds does not point to a safety with the range to defend deep throws as a single-high safety, but he has previously proven he can work across the field efficiently. That ability, paired with his proclivity for reading the quarterback’s eyes and triggering quickly, may allow Brown to negate any worries over range and succeed as a single-high in the pros.
Good range on display here from Ji'Ayir Brown. Just kind of mistimes it when arriving at the catch point. pic.twitter.com/10XjFOpNUT— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 19, 2023
Doing so would be especially important were Brown to land with the 49ers. San Francisco plays a lot of two-high shells, but there’s reason to believe the Niners may infuse more single-high coverages with Steve Wilks as a defensive coordinator.
Regardless of whether that proves to be the case, a safety who can patrol the deep middle individually is necessary to allow Talanoa Hufanga to drop down closer to the line of scrimmage. That way, Hufanga can wreak the havoc that made him an All-Pro in 2022.
But Brown can also make a significant impact down in the box. As a run defender, he has displayed hugely impressive closing speed to the football and a remarkable talent for slipping blocks not only from tight ends and receivers in space, but also from interior linemen at close quarters.
More superb work against the run, this time while playing single-high. Aggressive getting downhill again, but with the control to slip two blocks and then the excellent tackling technique to wrap up the RB. pic.twitter.com/BhdKAXZtIV— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 19, 2023
His proficiency against the run is partially illustrated by the seven tackles for loss Brown made in 2022. Also used successfully as a blitzer, Brown had 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last season, and with 10 interceptions (six in 2021 and four in 2022). He added eight pass breakups across his final two years with the Nittany Lions, Brown has production in several areas of the game that is very tough to ignore.
No biggy, just a safety winning a one on one block with a guard to make a TFL. pic.twitter.com/fib6HSXGRv— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 19, 2023
At 5’11” and 203 pounds, there will be concerns about Brown’s ability to match up with ‘power slot’ receivers and tight ends when he lines up in the nickel role in the NFL. Moreover, as Hufanga has learned, the confidence Brown has in his eyes can be exploited by pro quarterbacks with the processing ability to do so.
Still, the 49ers have reaped the rewards of Hufanga’s tendency to take chances, and last season saw him develop an outstanding rapport with Gipson that at times bordered on symbiosis.
With Brown operating in a similarly instinctual fashion, it is easy to see him expediently developing that kind of relationship with Hufanga in the relatively near future.
Split safety look, tremendous read and react work from Ji'Ayir Brown. Great drive on the ball again, big hit to jar the ball free. pic.twitter.com/8CQ5AIPPYt— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 19, 2023
But there is no pressure for him to achieve that immediately. Gipson gives the 49ers a reliable starter whose presence would allow them to bring Brown along slowly as a rookie, as they did with Hufanga.
The combination of a pressure-free environment in which he is unlikely to be asked to step in and start right away could be beneficial. Plus, a defensive coordinator in Wilks who is renowned for his work with the secondary could well be exactly what Brown needs to blossom into a long-term starter.
Racking up nine interceptions between them in 2022, Gipson and Hufanga gave the 49ers on-ball production at safety that they never got from long-term pairing Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt.
Brown’s collegiate numbers point to him being able to maintain that production. Though it’s important not to read too much into top-30 visits, in this case it might not be a huge stretch to think the 49ers brought him in to potentially rubber stamp an internal decision to make a player with the instincts, the versatility, and the physicality to thrive as an NFL free safety their succession plan at the position.