49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Last chance for injury-prone Jermaine Kelly

Jermaine Kelly #3 of the San Jose State Spartans defends a pass intended for Collin Johnson #9 of the Texas Longhorns (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Jermaine Kelly #3 of the San Jose State Spartans defends a pass intended for Collin Johnson #9 of the Texas Longhorns (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

49ers defensive back Jermaine Kelly has the physical makeup. But an injury history won’t help his chances of making the 53-man roster in 2020.

Cornerback is arguably one of the most questionable positions on the San Francisco 49ers roster heading into 2020, particularly looking at what happens beyond this season.

Yet it’s far too questionable to think former San Jose State cornerback Jermaine Kelly Jr. would be able to offer up much of anything in terms of a long-term solution.

Kelly joined the league as an seventh-round addition to the Houston Texans following the 2018 NFL Draft. But injuries prevented him from making an impact during the preseason his rookie year, and Kelly found himself on season-ending injured reserve that season, essentially redshirting it. Then in August of 2019, the Texans let him go with an injury designation.

The Niners subsequently signed Kelly to their practice squad in December of last year, re-signing him earlier this offseason to add him to the 90-man roster.

Kelly had modestly impressive collegiate stats, split between Washington before transferring to San Jose State:

Jermaine Kelly Defense & Fumbles Table
TacklesDef IntFumbles
2016San Jose StateMWCJRCB9204241.00.0000510
2017San Jose StateMWCSRCB11385431.00.016868.011110
San Jose State589672.00.016868.011620

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 7/13/2020.

San Francisco is clearly looking to get the kind of production Kelly put up during his senior season, particularly noting his 11 passes broken up.

Whether or not Kelly can replicate that against pro-level competition, however, is yet to be determined.

He hasn’t exactly had the chance to step on the field for in-game situations.

Why Jermaine Kelly improves with 49ers in 2020

On the surface, it makes sense why Kelly would be attractive to the Niners. His 6-foot-1, 204-pound frame is ideal for what coordinator Robert Saleh wants for his boundary cornerbacks.

Plus, Kelly managed to stay mostly healthy for his last two collegiate seasons, so one can hope the injuries that plagued him in Houston won’t carry over to his next stint at the NFL level.

There isn’t too much tape on Kelly. But what is there showcases a pretty good willingness to take on both running backs in the run game while being aggressive at the point of the catch:

Kelly has some speed to his game, too, as evidenced by a solid 4.52 40-yard time at his pro day in 2018. Typically, cornerbacks hovering around 4.50 have a good chance to use that play speed, and it shows up tape fairly well.

If Kelly can harness these traits into something useful, the Niners may have just found themselves a nice gem.

Why Jermaine Kelly regresses with 49ers in 2020

San Francisco doesn’t have a lot of proven depth behind their top boundary trio of Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon. Despite some re-signs and undrafted free-agent additions, Kelly is still relegated to the back end of the roster.

This will ultimately translate into relatively few reps in training camp and probably a drive or two during the fourth quarter of preseason games.

None of this spells good news for Kelly, who already has to overcome the fact he hasn’t appeared in preseason games and has an injury history to put aside.

In all likelihood, he appears pegged to be one of those roster fillers for the offseason. Nothing more.

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

Kelly is facing a massive climb. There’s no doubt about that. As far as his 53-man roster chances go, he’s a long shot.

Sherman, Witherspoon and Moseley are all free agents in 2021, while depth corners Jason Verrett and Dontae Johnson both returned on one-year deals, too. But all of them have proven pro-level track records, leaving Kelly to essentially compete with the undrafted DeMarkus Acy in camp.

As such, keeping Kelly around is probably little more than a move to push Acy, who has some upside out of Missouri, into a role where he, not Kelly, winds up being a promising developmental defensive back to potentially replace one of the aforementioned names in 2021.

That’s not exactly good news for Kelly, though.

To make the roster, Kelly will have to outperform not only Acy, but also Johnson and Verrett. It’s hard to project the former San Jose State product doing that.

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The reality is Kelly probably sees a handful of drives during the preseason, finding himself off the roster — potentially back on the practice squad — once the 49ers’ 2020 regular-season roster is announced.