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3 challenges the 49ers secondary faces heading into training camp

The 49ers may have the ideal DC to build on recent strides in the defensive backfield.

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NFL: JAN 22 NFC Divisional Playoffs - TBD at 49ers Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Steve Wilks goes into his first season as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator with quite a challenge.

Replacing DeMeco Ryans and keeping San Francisco’s defense among the NFL’s elite will be no mean feat. Top-level performance can be difficult for any defense to maintain year-on-year and, though the 49ers possess a tremendously talented unit, the transition from an in-house coach to one coming from outside the building may make it even tougher for the Niners in 2023.

Yet, there is one specific area where Wilks can be viewed as an upgrade on his predecessor. Wilks is an experienced and highly respected coach of defensive backs, one renowned for his meticulous nature and success in developing players in the secondary.

As such, much will be expected of Wilks as he takes charge of a defensive backfield that made significant strides in 2022.

Wilks’ overall goal will, of course, be to ensure the 49ers’ defense is again in the mix as the best in the NFL. However, there are several challenges specific to the secondary that Wilks and his staff must rise to in order to maximize the prospects of the defense staying at the top of the pile.

Take Deommodore Lenoir to the next level

Wilks was this week effusive in his praise of Lenoir, who after a trying rookie year, made a huge leap in year two. Lenoir excelled playing inside and out, blossoming into a reliable starter across from number one corner Charvarius Ward.

Lenoir has already impressed Wilks, who said on Wednesday:

“You look at Demo, I thought he took strides this offseason and is really getting better. You can see his confidence and I think his confidence is coming from really in his preparation. If you watch him each and every day as I have, you see him taking steps and really focusing on the details in the classroom, and it is transferring to the field.”

Wilks pointing out Lenoir’s commitment to studying the nuances of the position stands out, as his awareness was a strength in 2022. Lenoir thrived last season because of his ability to play with excellent zone eyes, read the quarterback and get great drive on the ball.

While Wilks has primarily relied on the two-deep coverage shells that have served as part of the foundation of the 49ers’ recent defensive success, San Francisco may blitz more often and, as a result, play more man coverage under his stewardship.

If he can help Lenoir gain an even better understanding of the finer details across man and zone coverage and elicit another jump in the former fifth-round pick’s development, the 49ers could soon have one of the better cornerback duos in the NFL.

Help the Ambry Thomas reclamation project succeed

Lenoir entered the NFL as part of the same 49er draft class as Ambry Thomas in 2021. Thomas was picked two rounds before Lenoir and late in his rookie season it appeared as if he was on a path to becoming a long-term starter for San Francisco.

Injuries pressed Thomas into action during the second half of 2021 and, following some initial struggles, he made strides in the final weeks of the season, particularly in his play at the catch point.

Thomas made one of the most famous plays of recent 49er history with his overtime interception of Matthew Stafford that clinched San Francisco’s place in the postseason.

However, Thomas failed to build on that strong finish, with Lenoir and Samuel Womack III clearly leapfrogging him on the depth chart. Thomas played only 41 defensive snaps in 2022.

With Emmanuel Moseley and Jimmie Ward gone, the 49ers are short on corner depth behind Ward, Lenoir and nickel Isaiah Oliver. They have invested successive fifth-round picks in Womack and Darrell Luter Jr, yet the best way for them to establish some more depth would be through a renaissance for Thomas.

Wilks hailed Thomas’ efforts in OTAs and minicamp, raising hopes he could prove a dependable backup on the outside.

For a coach regarded for getting the best out of defensive backs, turning Thomas around and getting him back on a path towards becoming a reliable third outside corner is a challenge of underrated importance to the 2023 defense.

Get Ji’Ayir Brown on the field

It isn’t a necessity that the 49ers get Brown on the field in year one given they have Tashaun Gipson at free safety for at least one more year. However, because of his versatility and the way in which he is already catching the eye in practice, it would behoove the Niners to make use of his skill set right off the bat.

Per Matt Barrows of The Athletic, the 49ers’ top pick in this year’s draft was the sole rookie to work with the first team during minicamp. Brown played some snaps alongside Talanoa Hufanga and George Odum, their presence on the field together potentially serving as a precursor to the three-safety looks the 49ers may deploy in the regular season.

Wilks was an advocate for the Niners selecting Brown and his affection for him clearly has not dissipated.

“I think he’s done well. He’s had an opportunity with Gipson] being here to be able to learn from a veteran guy, and they do a great job communicating and talking,” said Wilks of Brown this week.

“Gip is one of the older guys in the room and I think he does a good job trying to relay things from a coach’s perspective, so he’s helped Ji’Ayir out tremendously. And his skill set, I told you from day one, I was excited about that, and I’ve seen him make strides and his ability to make plays on the ball from the post is tremendous. He covers a lot of ground.”

With Brandon Aiyuk having previously praised Brown’s prowess for making plays on the ball, the early signs of his proficiency for creating turnovers translating to the pros are good.

Last season, the Niners were second in the NFL in turnovers created with 30. Takeaways are typically volatile from year to year, but finding a regular role for Brown – who can also create turnovers through his aptitude as a blitzer – could help San Francisco stay near the top of the league.

In college, Brown showed playmaking ability playing as a deep safety, from the slot and in the box. After pounding the table for the Niners to select him, Wilks can increase his chances of a successful start to his career with San Francisco by making sure Brown is on the field often enough to produce the game-changing plays that defined his final two years in college.