The San Francisco 49ers have suffered a number of key injuries to their secondary over the first half of 2018, which means some changes should take place from here on.
Colbert was one of many second-year defenders struggling this season. And as Pro Football Focus pointed out (h/t KNBR 680’s Brad Almquist), Colbert’s 31.7 overall grade made him the NFL’s worst starting safety this season.
That’s one change the 1-6 49ers should make. And there are more too.
San Francisco’s defensive backfield is one of the team’s primary weaknesses of many this season. But considering the long-term picture, the Niners’ woes here open up the opportunity to see what the team has elsewhere in this area of the field.
Per Pro Football Focus, Reed is an upgrade over Colbert — posting a 60.3 grade, albeit on 150 fewer snaps. But if Reed plays adequately enough, he’ll at worst be a starting-caliber player for evaluation in 2019.
The Niners’ other safety, Jaquiski Tartt, doesn’t need to be moved from his strong-side spot. While he hasn’t exactly been stellar this season, the 49ers should focus their secondary reshuffling in other areas of the field.
With those two spots locked down, let’s focus on the cornerback position.
No. 1 corner Richard Sherman has been in and out of the starting lineup, primarily set back by a calf injury. When on the field, he’s been dominant. And while San Francisco’s defensive snaps should focus on younger players, keeping Sherman on the field has its benefits. First, it keeps the Niners secondary from being completely overwhelmed and embarrassed. It also shifts focus to the other side of the field, giving San Francisco’s other defensive backs more opportunities to make plays.
Or not, but learn from the experience.
This is a primary reason why starting second-year corner Ahkello Witherspoon is a prime must. Many of the starting reps have gone to the veteran, Jimmie Ward, who will be a free agent this offseason and certainly doesn’t fit into the team’s long-term plans.
Every snap the oft-injured Ward sees is one either Witherspoon or the rookie, Tarvarius Moore, doesn’t see. And that’s detrimental to the 49ers’ long-term plans too.
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Both Witherspoon and Moore are third-round NFL Draft picks — relatively high investments the Niners need to determine will either be parts of the puzzle or busts. The sooner San Francisco figures this out, the better.
Let Witherspoon start and work Moore into the rotation when possible. Relegate Ward to an injury backup if needed.
At nickel, there’s little reason to change out cornerback K’Waun Williams. With a 68.8 overall grade — less than a point below Sherman’s 69.5 mark — Williams is easily San Francisco’s second best defensive back. Signed through 2020, it’s pretty clear the 49ers are better off keeping him in the mix as opposed to finding some other option.
Particularly with Reed now handling safety duties.
Heading into three consecutive matchups against one-win teams (Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders, New York Giants), the Niners can afford to play younger and developing commodities without having to worry about getting completely embarrassed like they did against Los Angeles in Week 7.
Maybe something good comes of it. If not, at least the 49ers have some additional knowledge on what needs to be fixed for 2019.
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