The 49ers are likely without defensive back D.J. Reed to start the 2020 season, and it’s possible a PUP designation is what he faces.
The 2020 offseason wasn’t particularly kind to the San Francisco 49ers, who lost a number of key players to various injuries during impromptu workouts. These included wide receivers Deebo Samuel (foot) and Richie James (wrist), as well as reserve defensive back D.J. Reed.
Reed suffered a torn pectoral earlier this offseason, which puts his availability for the regular season into serious jeopardy, and the Niners already placed him on the active/NFI list to start training camp.
The third-year pro out of Kansas State, whom the Niners selected in Round 5 of the 2018 NFL Draft, was pegged to be a versatile backup this season, both at nickel cornerback and as a free safety, which was identical to the role he was assigned last year.
In those limited chances on the field, Reed performed well enough, particularly in 2018 when he filled in more than admirably for an injured nickel corner, K’Waun Williams:
2020 could have been a watershed year for Reed, especially considering Williams is a pending free agent after this season. If Reed was to showcase a starter’s ability, there was a chance San Francisco could consider moving on from the older, more-expensive Williams in order to get both younger and cheaper with Reed.
Yet Reed’s injury casts a shadow on that possible outcome, and it’s highly likely he’ll start off the season on the physically unable-to-perform (PUP) list.
Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series looks at what the future holds for the 5-foot-9 23 year old.
Why D.J. Reed improves with 49ers in 2020
Reed saw just 125 defensive snaps last season, yet he ended up making the most out of his pass-coverage skills with an impressive 80.3 coverage grade here, according to Pro Football Focus. While his run-stopping abilities (a 45.0 PFF grade) left a lot to be desired, it’s promising to note Reed can at least serve as a reliable coverage option either out of the slot or at the top end of the defense.
This is important, considering both Williams and free safety Jimmie Ward have a bit of an injury history.
Reed’s availability to start the season, though, is in doubt. Sure, pectoral tears can take no more than three months to fully heal, and players can come back earlier than expected (see linebacker Kwon Alexander last season). Yet Reed has already shown enough prowess over the last two years to suggest he’ll be OK enough if presented with an opportunity upon his recovery.
And remember, it typically takes a couple of years for young defensive backs to mature at the NFL level. Reed’s growth has moved upward enough to hint at this reality.
Why D.J. Reed regresses with 49ers in 2020
Reed looked more out of place during 2019 preseason action at safety than he did at nickel. Considering Williams is one of the better slot corners in the game, it’s likely Reed won’t be asked to fill in there too often.
Even if Reed returns healthy enough, one can wonder just how effective he’ll be in tackling, which isn’t one of his strong suits. In the playoffs last season, Alexander’s tackling efficiency took a hit despite being able to heroically come back from his own pectoral tear.
There’s a strong chance Reed suffers a similar fate if rushed back into the fray prematurely.
On top of that, Reed hasn’t exactly demonstrated the regular-reliability factor within the secondary. Being a quality reserve is nice, but one can safely question if he’s little more than a backup and spot starter at best.
Projected role with 49ers in 2020
The PUP list is the likeliest of destinations for Reed by Week 1. His injury will assuredly keep him out of training camp, and PUP rules delegate any player being placed on this list will have to sit out the first six weeks of the regular season. They won’t count against the team’s 53-man regular-season roster, although a roster move would have to be engineered upon a would-be return from the PUP, potentially adding Reed back to the 53-man roster, cutting him or placing him on injured reserve.
This injury opens up the door for other reserve defensive backs to make the regular-season roster.
San Francisco will want an “uber-reserve” defensive back to start the season, a player who can double in multiple spots within the secondary and potentially contribute on special teams as Reed has, previously.
Then, it’ll be a waiting game to see where Reed is at with his recovery and how the Niners’ own roster is looking after at least six weeks, assuming the PUP list is the route the team takes.
And hopefully, Reed will be able to bounce back from the injury and at least reassume his role on the roster for the rest of the season.