Tarvarius Moore

Is 49ers' biggest roster hole safety depth going into 2020 NFL season?

Is 49ers' biggest roster hole safety depth going into 2020 NFL season?

The 49ers don't have many holes on their roster after falling short in Super Bowl LIV. They replaced two key departures -- DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders -- by adding Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Every great team has a weakness, though. So, what's San Francisco's soft spot? ESPN's Football Outsiders believes it's the 49ers' possible lack of safety depth.

Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt round out the 49ers' starting safeties, but they aren't exactly ballhawks. The 49ers were the only team in the NFL last season whose safeties failed to record an interception, and they were in the bottom five in tackles at the position, ESPN notes. 

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Ward only has two interceptions through six seasons while Tartt has three in five years. Behind them are Tarvarius Moore and Marcell Harris, neither which are proven players quite yet. 

And then there are the health concerns. Ward has started 10 games or more just twice in his career, and Tartt has done so once. After playing 16 games last season -- including the playoffs -- Ward is focused on ways to keep his body healthy

“I’m trying to avoid soft-tissue injuries,” Ward recently told Bay Area reporters. “Breaking bones, and this and that, hopefully, I stay healthy, but that can happen. But soft-tissue injuries, I can avoid that by yoga and just working out and putting the right things in my body.”

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The 49ers also signed an intriguing undrafted free agent in former Alabama safety Jared Mayden. As a senior last season, Mayden led the Crimson Tide with four interceptions while playing all around the field.

Safety very well might be the 49ers' weak link, however, it's clear the 49ers shouldn't have too much to worry about. The top-four players at the position have experience over the last few seasons, and perhaps the front office found a hidden gem after the draft.

Merton Hanks hypes Conference USA prospects to 49ers, other NFL clubs

Merton Hanks hypes Conference USA prospects to 49ers, other NFL clubs

Merton Hanks is not shy about reaching out to his former NFL team to provide tips on college prospects he knows well.

Hanks, who played eight seasons with the 49ers (1991-98) and won a Super Bowl, is the Senior Associate Commissioner of Conference USA, which consists of 14 football-playing universities.

“We want to make sure and give our young men every opportunity to be viewed by NFL clubs,” Hanks said on The 49ers Insider Podcast. “So I tend to call my peer group around the NFL to make sure they’re paying attention to our players.

“Oh, I bug everybody, (including) the 49ers with John Lynch and Martin Mayhew, that whole staff. They do a great job of sourcing talent from Division III all the way up to the (power five). They go to where the good players are, and we have some good players in the conference.”

The 49ers have six players from Conference USA on their roster, including such draft picks as safety Tarvarius Moore (Southern Mississippi), and receivers Trent Taylor (Louisiana Tech) and Richie James (Middle Tennessee State).

The 49ers signed quarterback Nick Mullens (Southern Mississippi) as an undrafted rookie in 2017, and he started eight games for the club in 2018.

One of the top prospects from Conference USA this year is Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant, who undoubtedly is on the 49ers’ radar.

The 49ers will be looking to add a tight end in the draft to pair with George Kittle. Bryant was the 2019 Mackey Award winner as the top tight end in college football.

“He reminds me of Brent Jones,” Hanks said, “a good pass-catching tight end and a willing blocker.”

Hanks also mentioned defensive back Amik Robertson of Louisiana Tech. Hanks envisions Robertson overcoming his less-than-ideal size (5-foot-8, 187 pounds) to carve out a 10-year NFL career with a playing style that reminds some of Tyrann Mathieu.

With the restrictions on private workouts and pro days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hanks said he believes the college athletes from Conference USA or from any college program who were not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine are at an inherent disadvantage this year.

“Those players are in a bit of a tough spot, in the sense that teams won’t be able to circle back and get on campus and really take a look at them,” Hanks said.

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One Conference USA prospect who might not suffer from not being invited to the combine is Middle Tennessee defensive end Tyshun Render.

New England coach Bill Belichick went to campus in late-February to pace Render through a workout while most of his NFL peers were in Indianapolis for the combine.

“Conference USA has been fortunate,” Hanks said. “We’re a football-playing conference in every sense. We put a lot of resources toward football and NFL clubs understand that they can come get good players.”

49ERS FROM CONFERENCE USA
LB Azeez Al-Shaair, Florida Atlantic
WR Richie James, Middle Tennessee State
S Tarvarius Moore, Southern Mississippi
QB Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi
WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech
RB Jeff Wilson Jr., North Texas

Jimmie Ward warns 49ers against replacing him with top draft prospects

Jimmie Ward warns 49ers against replacing him with top draft prospects

Jimmie Ward would prefer to remain with the 49ers, assuming they offer him the kind of contract he is looking for in free agency. But if that isn't in the cards, the free safety has thoughts on how San Francisco should go about replacing him.

There have been a number of safeties -- both free agents and draft prospects -- whose names have been associated with the 49ers. Ward has heard the rumors, but he doesn't view them as realistic, and recently took to Instagram to explain why.

"[Anthony] Harris is going to be more expensive than me in free agency FYI," Ward began. Considering Spotrac projects the Vikings' free agent to command an average annual salary of $13.8 million on his next contract, it's difficult to argue with that first point.

Next, Ward moved his attention to the draft prospects.

"If you draft a safety in the first round, the two names y'all keep throwing up every other day ... just know you can't use them how our DC used me this past season. ... Best bet is to draft a coverage safety in the later rounds to get a steal."

The two safety prospects being connected to San Francisco's first-round draft pick (No. 31 overall) are Alabama's Xavier McKinney and LSU's Grant Delpit. Both prospects are larger than Ward, which could be a benefit when playing closer to the line of scrimmage. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh frequently used Ward as a single-high safety this past season, however, in which range and coverage skills are paramount for the last line of defense.

Clearly, Ward doesn't think McKinney and Delpit are capable of providing that skill set.

[RELATED: If Ward leaves, 49ers have safety options in 2020 draft]

Finally, Ward closed with an endorsement of his understudy.

"Stick with [Tarvarius Moore] at safety if they don't sign me back!"

Moore transitioned back to his natural position of free safety last season after being tried at cornerback as a rookie and showed some promise, even intercepting a pass in the Super Bowl. Selected with the No. 95 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Moore has two more seasons remaining on his rookie contract at a very affordable price. In theory, San Francisco could elevate Moore to the starting job and save money at that position that the team could use elsewhere, such as in contract extensions for standouts George Kittle and DeForest Buckner.

You don't often see a pending free agent give his incumbent team advice on how to replace him. Given Ward's reputation in the 49ers' locker room, though, it's no surprise that he would advocate for a teammate.