What a difference one year can make.
Last year, the 49ers entered the NFL Scouting Combine with the No. 2 pick in the draft and had their eyes on defensive end Nick Bosa. This time around, San Francisco has the No. 31 pick after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Bosa was named Defensive Rookie of the Year after a dominant season.
While the 49ers have fewer needs and holes to fill than this time last year, there still are areas they can improve on through the draft. We already highlighted five receivers they should be watching throughout the combine. Now it's time to turn to the defense.
Under coordinator Robert Saleh, the 49ers' pass defense improved by leaps and bounds last season. They allowed the fewest passing yards per games in the NFL at 169.2, but ranked just 16th in touchdowns allowed (23) and tied for eighth with 12 interceptions. Their pass defense benefitted greatly from a dangerous D-line, and the defensive backfield still could use some help.
Safety Jimmie Ward is set to hit free agency, cornerback Richard Sherman turns 32 years old in March and is a free agent after 2020, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon took yet another step back in his third pro season.
Alabama's Xavier McKinney could be the perfect draft prospect for the 49ers, but likely will be gone by the time they're on the clock. Cal product Ashtyn Davis also would have been a name to watch at the combine, however, the former track star isn't competing in drills as he rehabs from surgery that left him out of the Senior Bowl and the Redbox Bowl.
LSU safety Grant Delpit fell to the 49ers in our latest mock draft before the combine, but won't perform in drills as he comes back from an ankle injury.
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With that being said, here are five defensive backs for the 49ers to keep their eyes on in Indianapolis. All of the players below are expected to be available near the end of the first round of if the 49ers trade back to the second round.
C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida
Henderson is expected to test well and could be really impressive in drills. He's a lanky cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, who looks smooth in coverage.
Henderson didn't have any interceptions as a junior but did produce 11 passes defensed. Over his three-year college career, he had six picks and 20 passes defensed.
It might be a surprise if he's still available at No. 31.
Damon Arnette, CB, Ohio State
Jeffrey Okudah stole the spotlight in the Buckeyes' secondary, but Arnette is rising up draft boards. While Okudah figures to be a top pick, Arnette should be available for the 49ers.
That doesn't mean Arnette is a player to look past, though. He can play press or off the ball and got better and better at Ohio State.
Arnette has plenty to gain at the combine, and could find himself on the 49ers' radar.
Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama
There are serious concerns about Diggs' ability as a tackler. He is a converted receiver and it really shows at times. But, his skills could convert well to Saleh's Cover 3 defense.
Trevon Diggs thread— @𝐂𝐅𝐁𝐋𝐢𝐯𝐞𝟐𝟒𝟕™ (@CFBLive247) February 25, 2020
Diggs shows very natural ball skills on this play and picks up the interception.. pic.twitter.com/X9Y2B6mDTO
Diggs is the kind of long corner at 6-2 and 207 pounds that Saleh covets. The athleticism and ball skills are there. There also are reasons to worry about him if he's asked to do what doesn't fit him best.
A.J. Terrell, CB, Clemson
One bad outing doesn't change everything. Terrell was roasted for giving up multiple touchdowns in the national championship game, but many of those were from being slightly too aggressive with his hands and a technique issue that easily can be changed.
Terrell is a handsy corner who really knows how to jab. If he falls down boards, the 49ers should take advantage of that.
A.J. Terrell puts some really great tape out there.— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) January 10, 2020
This is how you use your length to bully guys off the route and completely control the leverage and catch point. Love his precise stabs. Good job to high point this ball for the INT too, showing off ball skills.
Great rep. pic.twitter.com/I89u14UPCF
Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Minnesota
Winfield is a firecracker. The 5-10 safety might not dominate the 40-yard dash but he makes plays. As a redshirt sophomore, Winfield recorded 83 tackles, seven interceptions and forced two fumbles.
In Antoine Winfield Jr. we trust. 〽️ pic.twitter.com/KVIjOlxiwL— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) September 8, 2019
Winfield might not be the 49ers' first option at safety, however, they could take a long look at him if he falls. His tape speaks louder than his size or straight-line speed.