49ers 2019 NFL Draft prospect profile: Safety Juan Thornhill

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 13: Juan Thornhill #21 of the Virginia Cavaliers intercepts a pass in the second half during a game against the Miami Hurricanes at Scott Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 13: Juan Thornhill #21 of the Virginia Cavaliers intercepts a pass in the second half during a game against the Miami Hurricanes at Scott Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers could be looking hard at safeties in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Virginia’s Juan Thornhill could be a potential target early in Round 2 if he slips that far.

For now, it appears as if the San Francisco 49ers are going to employ a stopgap option at free safety heading into 2019.

The Niners re-signed versatile, yet often-injured defensive back Jimmie Ward to a one-year deal during the offseason, and they’re also hoping third-year pro Adrian Colbert bounces back from both an ankle sprain and otherwise disappointing effort last season.

Yet there’s a real possibility neither secures the long-term duties at free safety — arguably the second most-important position, outside of weak-side edge rusher, in coordinator Robert Saleh’s Cover 3 defense.

So it wouldn’t be shocking at all if general manager John Lynch is looking for a top-quality prospect here in the 2019 NFL Draft.

And Virginia’s Juan Thornhill could easily be the target.

Juan Thornhill Defense & Fumbles Table
TacklesDef IntFumbles

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 4/21/2019.

Thornhill, a three-year starter at Virginia and a player who switched from cornerback to safety, has seen his production rise significantly over the past two years, solidifying his chances as a late first- or early second-round pick in this year’s draft following an impressive senior campaign.

With San Francisco owning the No. 36 overall pick in this year’s draft, how feasible is it for Lynch and Co. to hope Thornhill falls to this spot? And what kind of player would the 49ers be getting if he’s the pick?

Let’s take a look.

Juan Thornhill’s Strengths

Thornhill fits the bill, size wise, coming in at 6-foot-0 and 205 pounds. He ran a commendable 4.42 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine, showing solid straight-line speed, which usually translates to the much-needed sideline-to-sideline abilities required for a single-high safety set.

One of the things that made him so successful in the college ranks was his football instincts. Thornhill appears to have a knack for recognizing and diagnosing routes, which partially explains the six interceptions and seven pass breakups he enjoyed last year.

He’s also quick in reaction, too, able to handle receivers abruptly changing directions. Simply put, Thornhill is a tough player to shake off from a wideout’s vantage point.

Thornhill also isn’t afraid to get tough and physical in tackling. When combined with his ballhawking mentality, one can get the idea he should have plenty of success at the NFL level.

Juan Thornhill’s Weaknesses

One of the things likely preventing Thornhill from being a prospect with a true first-round grade is the fact he has some issues with run defense, despite posting solid Pro Football Focus numbers here, as shown in the above video.

On occasion, Thornhill can take poor angles when pursuing a ball carrier from the backfield. The same is also true with receivers already possessing the ball long before Thornhill gets there.

This has led to some troubling technique and pursuit skills, which hopefully can be coached up at the pro level.

That said, Thornhill can be baited out of position with misdirections and fakes, which could make him something of a liability if he doesn’t shore up that element of his game.

How He Fits with the 49ers

The good news for San Francisco is it already has two safeties, Ward and Colbert, capable of starting this season. Should Thornhill be the Niners’ second-round target in this year’s NFL Draft, he wouldn’t be pressed into starting right away.

Remember, defensive backs often struggle early after transitioning to the pros.

Despite this, Thornhill seems to be a natural fit in a single-high scheme. Yet with some 49ers question marks at safety, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see Thornhill reinforce the shortcomings here, either.

Simply put, think of a versatile player like Ward and just add some notable playmaking skills on top of it.

Thornhill would certainly be a wise addition for a Niners defensive backfield lacking some thump and ballhawking players within its ranks. And if he slips into Round 2, one has to think Thornhill will be high on San Francisco’s radar.

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The 2019 NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday, April 25 at 8 p.m. ET.