49ers ‘Who Is?’ series: Marcell Harris to be replaced in 2020?

Marcell Harris #36 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Marcell Harris #36 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

In 2018, the 49ers appeared to have a hidden-gem safety, Marcell Harris, yet his regression last year prompts questions about his future.

Not much went right for the San Francisco 49ers in 2018, although then-rookie defensive back Marcell Harris looked to be yet another one of general manager John Lynch’s late-round NFL Draft finds.

Harris, who was selected in Round 6 of that year’s draft after missing all of 2017 at Florida with an Achilles injury, filled in for the Niners’ starter at strong safety, Jaquiski Tartt, who landed on injured reserve late in Harris’ rookie season.

And Harris made a good impression, prompting ideas he could be a younger, cheaper option over Tartt at some point down the road.

That was before 2019, though, when Harris was asked to fill in again for Tartt when the latter was out for four games with ribs injuries. While Harris had some splash plays, including forcing a fumble from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 13, the majority of the two-year pro’s efforts were less than exemplary.

Marcell Harris Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/29/2020.

Heading into his third year, the pressure is on for Harris to stick around on San Francisco’s roster. After the 2020 draft, the 49ers inked former Alabama safety Jared Mayden to potentially challenge Harris to be Tartt’s immediate backup, and there are other options to possibly push Harris off the 53-man roster altogether.

To stave off that possibility, Harris will need to showcase some serious growth heading into 2020 during training camp and beyond.

Why Marcell Harris improves with 49ers in 2020

It’s important to note Harris’ absence from football in 2017, which carried over into his rookie season for the first half, hindered his development. And it’s common for young defensive backs to struggle anyway in their transition from the college ranks to the pros.

In short, additional playing time should help.

Harris does have big-play ability, which is a necessity for strong safety types. Pass breakups were a strength of his when given the opportunity, and forcing that fumble on Jackson was a key moment in what could have been a crucial 49ers road win in Baltimore.

In 2018, Harris also had a number of open-field tackles to save two of the Niners’ scarce wins late in the season.

So there’s plenty of reason to assume Harris capitalizes on those abilities, honing his skills and correcting those issues which could undo him in the near future.

Why Marcell Harris regresses with 49ers in 2020

Harris is viewed as more of an in-the-box safety, which would have worked well in coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3 Under, Cover 3 defense with the strong safety up towards the line of scrimmage.

In 2019, though, Saleh implemented a more traditional defensive look, making his safeties interchangeable, which subjected Harris to a higher amount of coverage snaps instead of staying closer to the line of scrimmage.

Harris didn’t perform well here, particularly in Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints, where he first missed a tackle from a bad angle on Saints tight end Jared Cook’s touchdown before giving up the following touchdown to tight end Josh Hill:

All told, opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 135.8 when targeting Harris, according to Pro Football Focus, which was up from a still-measly 127.8 rating allowed the year before.

It’s possible, perhaps likely this is simply who Harris is.

And in today’s pass-happy NFL, defensive backs who can merely stop the run aren’t exactly prized commodities.

Chances of making the 49ers’ 53-man roster in 2020

Harris is certainly on the roster bubble heading into training camp. The idea of him eventually replacing Tartt, a 2021 pending free agent, have largely eroded. Now, the question becomes whether or not San Francisco is comfortable with Harris serving as a primary backup this season.

Mayden is the player to watch here. Overshadowed by his former Alabama Crimson Tide teammate, Xavier McKinney, Mayden still managed to be highly productive enough and was listed as the 49ers’ best undrafted free-agent signing of 2020. One would expect Mayden to seriously challenge Harris for reps during training camp in order to climb the pecking order this preseason.

True, Harris’ previously displayed playmaking skills could prove to be the difference. But one of the major knocks against the former Florida standout was his lack of consistency.

That could ultimately be Harris’ undoing.

In short, Harris is at a crossroads where solid efforts in camp could ultimately push him to the stronger side of the roster bubble.

Next. 5 Niners players who must step up in 2020. dark

Any regression, however, would likely result in Harris failing to make the cut by the time Week 1 rolls around.