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Whitner envisions Saleh taking three 49ers DBs with him

NBC Sports
K'Waun Williams

The 49ers’ defense played on Saturday like a unit intent on giving defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s head-coaching stock a significant upward thrust.

Saleh will enter the offseason as one of the NFL’s top and immediately available head-coaching candidates.

What might make Saleh even more attractive is the belief he might have done a better job in 2020 with the 49ers’ depleted depth chart than what he accomplished a year earlier during the team’s march to the Super Bowl.

Despite playing most of the season without Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Richard Sherman, the 49ers’ defense ranks fifth-best in the NFL in total yards allowed (316.7 per game) and fourth in pass defense (211.2).

The 49ers could lose Saleh as a defensive coordinator this offseason. And it might not end there. The 49ers could lose some players who enjoyed the experience of playing for Saleh and might want to follow him.

Former 49ers Pro Bowl safety and NBC Sports Bay Area analyst Donte Whitner said on 49ers Talk he knew what he would do.

“If I were Robert Saleh, I’d try to take three guys,” Whitner said.

At the top of the list is 49ers nickel back K’Waun Williams, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. Saleh leaned heavily on Williams in a number of different roles, including coming off the slot on blitzes.

“It’s hard to master the nickel position, especially in this defense,” Whitner said. “They ask him to wear so many different hats: Defensive line, linebacker, safety, corner. They ask him to do so many things.


“They ask him to understand quarterback counts and how to manipulate the quarterback, body position and being natural at the position. I’d try to get K’Waun Williams.”

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The second person on Whitner’s list is a bit of surprise.

After all, fourth-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has been a disappointment through most of his time with the 49ers after being selected as a third-round pick in 2017. Witherspoon is scheduled for unrestricted free agency, too.

“(It’s) pretty much guaranteed that the 49ers probably aren’t going to sign this guy back, especially the way this season went,” Whitner said. “Witherspoon is a guy that Saleh has openly talked about loving this guy and loving the way he performs in practice. I could see getting him on a one-year or cheap deal.”

Witherspoon lost his starting job to Emmanuel Moseley late last season. He completely fell out of favor with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan early in the season.

Saleh has built him back up. And Witherspoon might have played his best two games over the past two weeks when injuries forced him back into the starting lineup for the first time since Week 2.

Whitner said he believes Saleh should take strong safety Jaquiski Tartt with him, too. Tartt, who is out for the season with a toe injury, can help Saleh implement his defense at wherever he lands.

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“Tartt is pretty much the quarterback of this defense when he’s back there,” Whitner said. “He does all the communicating. If Saleh is going to take this cover-3 system over to Detroit or wherever he lands, he’s going to need somebody who can react and can call out the defense and take control back there.”

Tartt is also scheduled for unrestricted free agency. The 49ers might want to go with Tarvarius Moore to join Jimmie Ward next season as the starting safeties.

Tartt is not likely to land a lucrative contract as a free agent, Whitner pointed out, so he would not be too costly for Saleh to take him wherever he goes.