49ers: Marcell Harris a case study in defensive back development

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

Entering 49ers training camp in 2020, safety Marcell Harris was squarely on the roster bubble. But his practices early show why patience is key.

It’s not uncommon for young defensive backs to take time acclimating to live at the pro level, and this seems to be the case for the San Francisco 49ers‘ third-year safety, Marcell Harris.

Harris entered the 2020 season squarely on the roster bubble. And looking back at what happened last year, it’s not hard to understand why. Over the course of four starts in relief of starting strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, who missed time with a serious ribs injury, Harris was mostly a liability in pass coverage. Those two early touchdowns allowed against the New Orleans Saints in Week 14, combined with a lowly 59.3 pass-coverage grade, according to Pro Football Focus, weren’t exactly ringing endorsements for his immediate future with the Niners.

Being on the fringes of a regular-season roster is especially true for late-round NFL Draft picks, of which Harris is one. Taken in Round 6 of the 2018 draft after missing the previous year at Florida with an Achilles tear, Harris was already behind the curve after making his way to the pro ranks.

Despite that, Harris flashed some open-field tackling talent late in his rookie season, prompting some to think he could be a long-term replacement for Tartt.

A few days into training camp 2020, this again could be the case.

Harris has been one of camp’s many defensive standouts, recording interceptions on back-to-back days and showcasing some noticeable improvement in route recognition. And to get a nod from former NFL cornerback and current Fourth and Nine analyst Eric Crocker has its merits:

There were some ugly plays from Harris last year, sure. Yet those often overshadowed the positive impact he had, including a strip-sack on Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson last season. That was just one of three fumbles Harris forced, which only reinforced the idea he can play down low and make plays on ball-carriers.

But to digest the area in which Harris needed to improve, pass coverage, one needs to look no further than some of his defensive teammates.

Case in point, free safety Jimmie Ward had a fairly tough time adjusting from his college days to the pro level. Ward’s rookie season, 2014, was noticeably frustrating before he landed on injured reserve. One could make the argument Ward took two-plus years to fully hit his stride, and he was a first-round pick.

Harris had a much steeper road to climb, notably because of his day-three draft status and coming off a serious injury his final year in college, which also forced him to miss time early his rookie season.

Short- and long-term implications for Marcell Harris, 49ers

Crocker also added Harris could benefit from the Niners’ recent switch to more Cover 2 looks, which makes both the free and strong safeties more interchageable. Previously, when San Francisco was featuring more single-high Cover 3 looks, Harris’ first role would have been as an in-the-box safety.

Harris’ range isn’t indicative of a single-high safety, but he has the knack for more traditional Cover 2 safety schemes. That’s a bonus.

But why this matters is because the 49ers could easily see Tartt, a pending free agent, walk in 2021 after his current contract expires. With the Niners already pressed up against the salary cap this season, as well as limited cap resources next year, it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see the team look for in-house options first.

Harris should be one of those.

Yes, a handful of interceptions and big plays in training camp shouldn’t be the entire body of work necessary to suggest Harris is both a lock for the 2020 roster and a long-term option to replace Tartt. But the improvements shown in camp so far suggest Harris has adjusted enough to the more complex, intricate routes and talents featured at the NFL level, which is one of the biggest hurdles young defensive backs have to face.

Next. 5 bold predictions for 49ers training camp. dark

With efforts like these, Harris will easily remove himself from the roster bubble between now and Week 1.