49ers’ 2019 ‘Who is?’ series: Safety Adrian Colbert

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Adrian Colbert #38 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after a play against the New York Giants during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Adrian Colbert #38 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after a play against the New York Giants during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

After a promising rookie 2017 season, San Francisco 49ers safety Adrian Colbert regressed heavily last year. He’s the subject of Niner Noise’s latest “Who Is?” piece with the 2019 season on the horizon.

In 2017, the San Francisco 49ers appeared to have found their long-term starter at free safety, that year’s seventh-round NFL Draft pick, Adrian Colbert.

Colbert made quite the splash after securing the starting job over then-injured defensive back Jimmie Ward, flashing both ranginess and hard-hitting abilities down the stretch of what would be an impressive rookie year.

Yet it all came crashing down in 2018, as Colbert was one of many second-year players on the Niners roster who struggled over the course of the season.

And the stats from both years only tell a portion of the story before Colbert landed on injured reserve after suffering a high-ankle sprain midway through the year:

Adrian Colbert Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/16/2019.

Granted, few players thrived within San Francisco’s last-ranked secondary last season — a unit which was part of a defense that set an NFL record-low two interceptions on the year.

In order for that standing to get better, players like Colbert will have to bounce back in 2019.

But will he? That’s the subject matter of Niner Noise’s latest “Who is?” piece.

Why Adrian Colbert Improves in 2019

Pro Football Focus ranked Colbert dead last out of 93 qualifying safeties last year, posting a paltry 31.7 overall grade.

On the positive side, it’s going to be hard for Colbert to do any worse than that, suggesting an improvement is likely in year three of his pro career. Additionally, it’s common to see young defensive backs struggle with the transition to the NFL ranks, even if they experience some modest success early on, like Colbert did.

Plus, it isn’t as if Colbert looked completely lost after solidifying a starting job in the backfield. Those sideline-to-sideline skills didn’t simply “go away,” and the fact the 49ers reinforced their pass rush this offseason should take a lot of pressure off the secondary in coverage duties.

This should allow Colbert to play with a lot more instinct instead of having to think through and anticipate movement and routes — something he struggled with a year ago.

Why Adrian Colbert Regresses

Colbert certainly impressed his rookie season. But that doesn’t change the fact he started just two games his senior 2016 at the University of Miami.

So there’s some collegiate inexperience there, too, which seems to have carried over into the early stages of Colbert’s NFL career. It’s very possible what we saw with Colbert his rookie season was a proverbial “flash in the pan,” not necessarily indicative of the kind of play he’ll offer this upcoming year and beyond.

On top of that, the 49ers aren’t simply going to hand back the starting job to Colbert. He’ll have to earn it out of training camp. If he doesn’t, it certainly will be hard to show any improvement if he’s relegated to backup duties and special teams only.

Projected Role with the 49ers in 2019

Ideally, the Niners would like Colbert to win the starting job over Ward this season. Ward is back only on a one-year deal, and there’s a real chance he’ll sign elsewhere in 2020.

That pending departure will be made much easier if Colbert winds up securing starts at free safety, which is the second most-important position in coordinator Robert Saleh’s Cover 3 single-high defense.

Yet San Francisco has repeatedly voiced praise for Ward, and not just for his versatility. There’s also a chance Ward has initially secured the starting job, therefore putting Colbert into a position where he has to take it in training camp.

If he does, it will mean Colbert has already flashed a lot of improvement over the lackluster play from 2018.

And that would be an excellent sign moving forward.

If not, Colbert will be relegated to an immediate backup role — necessary, considering Ward has landed on injured reserve in four of his last five seasons.

Important, sure. But quite the disappointment after what Colbert offered in 2017.

Next. 5 49ers who will bounce back in 2019. dark

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