49ers secondary could be a major liability in 2021

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Jason Verrett (22) Mandatory Credit: San Francisco 49ers/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Jason Verrett (22) Mandatory Credit: San Francisco 49ers/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network /

The 49ers made efforts to beef up their defensive backfield during the offseason, but the secondary could still be a worry point in 2021.

It might be a safe bet to assume the San Francisco 49ers wish they had put more of an emphasis on building up their secondary during the 2020 NFL Draft, although having just five picks at their disposal made it challenging to do anything but pass on cornerbacks and safeties.

So it made sense the Niners used three of their 2021 draft picks on defensive backs, grabbing Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas in Round 3, then Oregon cornerback Deommodore Lenoir and USC safety Talanoa Hufanga in Round 5.

Yet the tendency of young defensive backs, particularly those taken in the later rounds of the draft, is to need time for development. None of the three should be envisioned as plug-and-play starters.

Putting more pressure on San Francisco’s current crop of starting defensive backs, which leads to some potentially serious questions entering 2021.

49ers secondary is potentially the No. 1 positional weakness in 2021

On a positive note, the 49ers appear to have all their starters at both cornerback and safety in place.

Cornerback Jason Verrett looks to back up his excellent 2020 campaign after playing just six regular-season games between 2016 and 2019, and he’ll assume the void left by veteran corner Richard Sherman, whose recent and unfortunate off-field issues all but ruled out any reunion with the Niners.

Opposite Verrett, fourth-year pro Emmanuel Moseley is penciled in as the No. 2 boundary cornerback, while K’Waun Williams is the assumed starting nickel.

But Verrett’s injury history hasn’t just disappeared, while the 30-year-old Williams also missed eight games with injuries last year.

At safety, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt also have pretty extensive injury histories, too.

See how this could potentially be a problem for San Francisco?

Pro Football Focus’ pre-2021 rankings of NFL secondaries weren’t too bullish on the 49ers’ group, ranking them 20th in the league and saying:

"Health will be key for this unit. Jason Verrett, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt have all dealt with more than their fair share of injuries throughout their careers. Emmanuel Moseley and K’Waun Williams both missed time with injury in 2020. San Francisco’s secondary isn’t particularly deep, and especially not enough to deal with injuries next season. Moseley will be an X-factor as an expected starter outside after seeing his overall grade drop over 10 points from 2019 to 2020."

Now, the Niners did build up some veteran depth at safety by signing Tony Jefferson and Tavon Wilson during the offseason. But the emphasis still needs to be on health.

A reinvigorated pass rush can assist 49ers defensive backfield

A common argument is a secondary is only as good as its pass rush allows it to be. At some point, a receiver is going to break from coverage and get open if allowed enough time.

In 2019, San Francisco managed 48 sacks, which was tied for fifth most in the NFL. Last year, however, that number dropped down to 30, thanks largely to early season-ending injuries to EDGEs Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.

Bosa is expected back in 2021. And while Ford’s status remains unclear, the addition of fifth-year EDGE Samson Ebukam in free agency should help matters a bit, at least on paper.

For those 49ers fans recalling the years under former defensive coordinator and now-Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, those Niners frequently managed to get by with less-known names in the defensive backfield, particularly at cornerback, thanks to a prolific pass rush led by Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.

Perhaps that’ll be a similar formula for first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, but one can still highlight why this portion of the roster should be a concern.

Especially with the injury histories looming so large.

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