The 49ers defense ascended to the best in the NFL last season in part because of the emergence of a dynamic, versatile and physical second-year safety.
Yet for as much as the Niners will have been thrilled by Talanoa Hufanga’s All-Pro 2022 and will be excited about his continued development, they have reason to be concerned by the lack of depth behind him.
With little buzz for this year’s safety class in the draft, the 49ers could have their pick of some of the best from this crop, even in a year when they will not make a choice until the 99th overall selection in the third round.
There are several intriguing candidates for the role of developmental safety in this draft. The 49ers hosted Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown for a top-30 visit, and he could provide San Francisco with an ideal successor to veteran starting free safety Tashaun Gipson.
But when the Niners come to be on the clock at 99, 101 and 102 — assuming they hang on to those selections — they could decide that the best solution to their lack of depth behind Gipson and Hufanga is to add another safety in the same mould as their newest defensive star, such is the talent of Illinois’ Sydney Brown.
Athleticism and versatility
A comparison between Brown and Hufanga could be considered a slightly lazy one to make. However, just as many analysts found it tough to avoid comparing Hufanga to Troy Polamalu last season, it is difficult to watch Brown — with his free-flowing hair and ultra-physical style of play — and not think of Hufanga.
Brown was a wrecking ball for a superb Illinois secondary that was the heartbeat of its defense in 2022, but it is the combination of his aggressiveness and his versatility that makes him such an appealing prospect.
His 5ft 10in and 210-pound frame may not scream great athlete, but his pre-draft workout revealed elite physical traits. Brown posted a Relative Athletic Score of 9.68, recording a 93rd percentile vertical jump, a 92nd percentile broad jump, and a 91st percentile bench press.
The explosiveness that his performance in the leaping section of his workout is glaringly obvious on Brown’s tape and helped him excel regardless of where he lined up, and he essentially lined up everywhere for the Illini.
Brown spent most of his snaps in 2022 in the box but also operated in the slot and as a deep safety, while he even played some outside cornerback.
It is highly unlikely he would be asked to do much of the latter in the NFL, and it’s open for debate whether he could be relied on to play single-high in the pros, but his multiplicity in excelling in the box, in the slot and as a deep safety in two-high looks makes him a superb fit for where the game is going and for a 49er defense that has often leaned heavily on the art of disguise.
His defining trait is his remarkable burst, which he uses to his advantage irrespective of what role he is playing. Indeed, his explosiveness enables Brown to make plays consistently when rolling downhill from depth and recover separation he concedes in coverage, his stunning closing speed facilitating spectacular plays at the catch point like this interception against Michigan State.
This is just phenomenal. Brown disrupts the receiver early in the route, navigates the traffic, recovers the separation and then makes an incredible play on the ball for the INT. Top-tier stuff. pic.twitter.com/lPpXIADLvO— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 25, 2023
That ability to close in a hurry should, along with his strength in reading the game from depth, aid Brown significantly if he is asked to play as a deep safety in two-high looks in the NFL.
Brown is an impressive pre-snap communicator who plays with excellent eyes in zone coverage, showing the read-and-react quickness to efficiently trigger and break on throws and get in front of the routes of receivers.
Sydney Brown is a favourite of mine in this class. Fast, physical and extremely versatile. Love how quickly he transitions to getting downhill here before just erasing the wide receiver as he goes up for the ball. pic.twitter.com/0ELDGKOii3— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 25, 2023
NFL teams can afford to be extremely confident in Brown’s prowess as a safety in zone, and they should be similarly bullish on what he can do from the slot.
Brown relies on his physical brand of coverage to consistently carry tight ends down the seam, while he has also proven effective in holding up against receivers over the middle.
Sydney Brown boasts outstanding closing speed. Exceptional recovery here to force the incompletion. pic.twitter.com/wpQFCWHjvp— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 25, 2023
A lack of fluidity in man coverage may lead to reticence to line him up against NFL slot receivers, but there should be no hesitation around what Brown can do in the run game.
Simply put, Brown destroys the run blocks of receivers and is similarly dominant against tight ends.
Excellent change of direction ability in pursuit from Brown. Tackling technique can be inconsistent but no issues here. pic.twitter.com/ekZiVHYoux— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 25, 2023
The aggression he shows in that area extends to his play in pursuit, in which he excels through the ease in which he can change direction in the open field, with his heavy hitting approach to tackling providing a tone-setting element that would fit right in with San Francisco’s fast and punishing defense.
His tackling technique is in need of some refinement. Brown often fails to gear down and square himself, leading to whiffs in the open field. Yet, given Hufanga has himself been guilty of going for the crushing hit at the expense of technique, the 49ers may be willing to overlook such an inconsistency.
Multiplicity and insurance
The most pressing question for teams considering Brown is whether the deficiencies in man coverage when he isn’t able to win with his physicality are enough of a worry to detract from the range of positives he brings to the table.
But even if his impact in the slot in college does not translate to the pros, there is still plenty of need in the NFL for safeties who can rotate effectively between the deep middle and the box.
Brown, who also found joy as a blitzer in his college career, has the potential to be so much more than that.
49ers already have one safety who's tremendously effective as a blitzer. Might they have an interest in another? pic.twitter.com/rGlctD42ib— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) April 25, 2023
He is a malleable chess piece on the defensive side of the ball, one that — were he to be drafted by the Niners and prove effective covering the deep middle and the slot — could free up Hufanga to spend much more time near the line of scrimmage wreaking havoc as a blitzer.
For a 49ers defense that has long since rotated its safeties but is not exactly flush with depth in the slot, Brown projects as an extremely useful prospect who could open a new level of disguise in three-safety looks and provide an extra layer of insurance at inside corner, lessening the pressure on the shoulders of Isaiah Oliver and Samuel Womack III.
Effective at all three levels of the defense, Brown is a prospect who could enable the 49ers to grow more multiple on defense and, though it is questionable whether he could be as effective in so many different capacities in the pros, he is too well-rounded of a defensive back not to find a role in which he can thrive.
Between his athleticism, his on-ball production and his versatility, Brown represents the archetype of what NFL defenses are looking for in the secondary, and projects as a high-ceiling player who can consistently create negative plays against both the run and the pass.
The 49ers have already quickly started harnessing potential the vast potential of one such safety and — though there’s an argument that adding Brown to Hufanga would be putting a hat on a hat — their secondary may be the perfect environment for Brown to start realising his obvious promise.