49ers CB Emmanuel Moseley in line to break out in 2020

Emmanuel Moseley #41 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
Emmanuel Moseley #41 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

Not heralded much when he was asked to start in 2019, 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley showed he could potentially be a long-term starter.

When San Francisco 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon suffered a serious foot sprain during the team’s Week 3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, there was essentially only one player totally endorsing Witherspoon’s on-field replacement, Emmanuel Moseley, to the fans and media: starting cornerback Richard Sherman.

“Honestly, I wish [Moseley] would have had a chance to play last year, because then people wouldn’t be as panicked as they are right now,” Sherman told reporters after Witherspoon’s injury. “He’s poised. He can play… I think that sometimes we overcomplicate things and we say, ‘Oh my god, this guy is this way on paper, this guy was this.’ Forget that. These are humans against humans and he’s a human being that can play this game at a high level and we believe in him.”

For the most part, Sherman was 100 percent correct.

Moseley, a 2018 undrafted free agent out of the University of Tennessee, missed all but one game his rookie season due to injury. Yet the Niners liked what they had, and transitioned smoothly onto the 53-man roster last year, eventually pushed into the starter’s role after Witherspoon suffered his injury.

Emmanuel Moseley Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/20/2020.

Moseley’s reaction skills in relief of Witherspoon didn’t go unnoticed. When the 49ers tried working Witherspoon back into the starting lineup, the results weren’t particularly inspiring. In Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks, Witherspoon was benched for Moseley again, and the latter came up with some key pass breakups in crucial situations.

Then in the playoffs, following Witherspoon allowing a long touchdown to Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, Moseley was put back into the starter’s role and didn’t relinquish it.

Sure, Moseley being out of position on that now-infamous 3rd-and-15 completion by the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV suggests the 24 year old still has room to develop. But the entire body of work also suggests San Francisco has yet another undrafted hidden-gem find within its ranks.

Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series evaluates what Moseley can do to get better, why he might regress, and what the immediate and long-term future holds for him.

Why Emmanuel Moseley improves with 49ers in 2020

Looking at a large body of work is vital in determining a defensive back’s value. Moseley’s Super Bowl gaffe shouldn’t overshadow the fact he put together quite the solid season in 2019, indicated by Pro Football Focus giving him a noteworthy 70.0 overall regular-season grade with quarterbacks posting an 86.6 passer rating when targeting him — third best among Niners corners last year.

For a 5-foot-11 boundary corner, this is notable. Moseley’s anticipation skills were exemplary, and rarely do pass catchers get far beyond him after making the catch, as shown in the video below:

In total, Moseley allowed 169 yards after the catch on the year, which equates to just over a yard per snap.

If Moseley is able to hone some of the more intricate elements to the game, such as correcting the kind of gaffe shown in the Super Bowl, his ability to become an all-around starting-caliber corner should increase dramatically.

Why Emmanuel Moseley regresses with 49ers in 2020

Despite Moseley’s somewhat shocking ascent last season, it’s important to note he still has just nine regular-season starts and two playoff starts under his belt. One must exercise some caution with young defensive backs, who can still struggle after flashing promise early in their respective careers.

Witherspoon is one such example. So is former Niners cornerback Rashard Robinson.

Moseley is also prone to some boom-or-bust moments, too. Case in point, Moseley’s miss on Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Andy Isabella for an 88-yard touchdown was a play the cornerback would preferably want to forget:

Or at least learn from.

There’s always the chance, particularly with a player boasting so little on-field experience, someone like Moseley reverts back to being someone who is merely OK in coverage, at best, and more susceptible to giving up big plays like the above one and the coverage gaffe against the Chiefs.

If those kinds of plays increase in 2020, it’ll be a clear indictment about Moseley’s future.

Projected role with 49ers in 2020 and beyond

Moseley enters a crucial stage in his NFL career this season. While he’s the favorite to earn the starting job alongside Sherman in 2020, the Niners aren’t simply going to hand him the job.

And considering Witherspoon is also entering a critical junction point in his own career, the training camp battle between these two potential starts is going to be one to watch.

If that bout goes in Moseley’s favor, though, he’ll face yet another challenge over the course of the season. Moseley will be a restricted free agent in 2021 and could face one of three possibilities. San Francisco could retain him on what would likely be a second-round tender, worth $3.259 million, or receive a Round 2 draft pick from a team wanting to pry him away, should the 49ers not match the offer. The other possibility is an extension, which might come to fruition at some point in the regular season if Moseley is solidifying himself as a quality option.

That’s probably the situation both the Niners front office and Sherman are hoping for.

Next. 3 burning questions for 49ers cornerbacks in 2020. dark

Needless to say, Moseley’s ascent and potential make him a player worth watching both in training camp and the regular season.