49ers roster 2021: Safety Marcell Harris needs a rebound

San Francisco 49ers defensive back Marcell Harris (36) Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers defensive back Marcell Harris (36) Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers couldn’t have been satisfied with reserve safety Marcell Harris’ pass coverage the last two years, meaning he’s now on the bubble entering 2021.

At one point late in 2018, there was a small but noticeable discussion suggesting the San Francisco 49ers could replace oft-injured strong safety Jaquiski Tartt with that year’s rookie, Marcell Harris, heading into 2019 and beyond.

After all, Tartt was just one of a number of injured defenders that year who allowed players like Harris to get some additional field time. Harris flashed some promise, too, especially late in the season after getting back onto the field following an Achilles injury suffered his final year at Miami in 2017.

Tartt’s injury reputation hasn’t gone away in the years since, yet Harris doesn’t appear poised to be that eventual replacement.

Probably not after starting four games in Tartt’s absence in 2019 and certainly not after seeing another four starts last year, both times coming when Tartt was out.

Marcell Harris Defense & Fumbles Table

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Generated 6/22/2021.

Aside from the occasional splash play here and there, including three forced fumbles in 2019, Harris has been a major liability in coverage, and many of those gaffes have looked awfully bad over the last two years when he was forced into starting roles.

With the Niners adding three new safeties this offseason, it appears as if the writing is on the wall for Harris’ immediate future.

Unless he bounces back.

Why Marcell Harris improves with 49ers in 2021

It’s always important to acknowledge young defensive backs can struggle to transition from the college ranks to the pros, so exercising some patience with a player like Harris is smart. Tartt’s starting teammate within the secondary, free safety Jimmie Ward, took a good three years to fully acclimate himself into a quality starter.

Related Story: Marcell Harris a case study in defensive back development

On top of that, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is expected to implement much more press-man coverage than the heavy zone schemes under former coordinator and now-New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh from the last four years.

This could actually work to Harris’ benefit, as he can use his 6-foot-0, 208-pound frame closer in the box to bounce pass-catchers off their routes rather than having to anticipate their movements in zone.

It’s a stretch, but it’s possible Harris gets better because of this.

Why Marcell Harris bottoms out with 49ers in 2021

Pass coverage wasn’t Harris’ forte in college, and that’s proving to be the same at the pro level, too.

According to Pro Football Focus, Harris’ pass-coverage grade in 2020 was a lowly 36.6 with opposing quarterbacks posting a 137.3 passer rating when targeting him. The year before, Harris wasn’t much better. PFF gave him a 59.3 pass-coverage mark in 2019, yet QBs still had a 135.8 rating when going after him.

When in doubt, go back and look at that 2019 game against the New Orleans Saints when Harris was in coverage. It wasn’t pretty.

Harris is a decent in-the-box run-stuffing safety, yes. But in today’s pass-happy league, pass coverage is vital for this position, and it’s not likely the 27-year-old Harris suddenly finds his groove here after being given multiple chances.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster

While the loss of fellow defensive back Tarvarius Moore to a serious Achilles injury this offseason helps improve Harris’ chances, the latter is still in serious jeopardy of missing out on the cut.

Particularly after San Francisco added three new safeties to the mix: Tavon Wilson, Tony Jefferson and the rookie out of USC, Talanoa Hufanta, in Round 5 of this year’s NFL Draft.

All three of those players have better pass-coverage pedigrees than Harris. Hufanga, in particular, is a player to watch after he recorded four interceptions over six games for the Trojans a year ago.

For Harris, whether or not he makes the 53-man roster could simply be a matter of the numbers game. Even if Moore remains out for the entirety of 2021, the 49ers are likely to keep only four safeties on the regular-season roster. With Ward and Tartt both back and healthy, there are now four reserves competing for essentially two roster spots.

Jefferson, the proven starting-caliber veteran, merely needs to show he’s recovered from a torn ACL he suffered back in 2019, while Hufanga has plenty of upside as an old-school in-the-box safety.

Entering year four of his pro career, Harris would cost the Niners $350,000 if cut, but this move would save $900,000 in cap savings.

More importantly, if he fails to outperform at least two of those three reserve names behind Ward and Tartt, it’ll be an easy decision from San Francisco’s vantage point.

Simply put, Harris needs to bounce back in a big way. And soon.

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