49ers roster 2021: Tavon Wilson to steal starting safety job?

San Francisco 49ers defensive back Tavon Wilson (32) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers defensive back Tavon Wilson (32) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /

When the 49ers signed veteran Tavon Wilson this offseason, he wasn’t intended to be a starter. But there’s a chance he steals a first-team job in 2021.

There probably wasn’t too much buzz when the San Francisco 49ers signed 31-year-old veteran safety Tavon Wilson to a one-year deal during the offseason.

Especially after the Niners re-signed their starting strong safety, Jaquiski Tartt, a short while afterward.

On paper, it looked as if Tartt would retain his hold on the starting job this season, while Wilson and a slew of other reserve defensive backs competed for one of two or three backup duties behind both Tartt and his free-safety counterpart, Jimmie Ward.

After all, despite seeing some time as a starter, Wilson has primarily been known as a reserve player with above-average coverage skills and a key ability to contribute on special teams in a career that’s spanned nine years thus far:

Tavon Wilson Defense & Fumbles Table
4 yr4 yrDET56393460239145.027821563156
4 yr4 yrNWE544516117410020.079601912
1 yr1 yrIND15200001010.02623320

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 8/5/2021.

Yet Tartt has a notable reputation as an injury-prone player, including being shelved nine games last season with a turf-toe injury and landing on season-ending injured reserve in three of his last four seasons.

By that measure alone, Wilson’s presence could prove to be a massive boost to San Francisco’s depth chart.

But can Wilson potentially emerge as a starting safety come Week 1?

Niner Noise’s “Who is?” series takes a deeper look.

Why Tavon Wilson makes a serious dent with 49ers in 2021

A likely reason why the 49ers targeted Wilson this offseason was the fact their pass-coverage safety options behind Tartt weren’t particularly impressive, namely Tarvarious Moore and Marcell Harris struggling in this department after being relied upon heavily the last three years.

Going back to Wilson’s 2019 campaign with the Detroit Lions where he started 13 games, the veteran boasted a 74.0 pass-coverage grade from Pro Football Focus.

Pretty good. Much better than the numbers put up by Moore or Harris. And with Moore now sidelined with an Achilles tear, Wilson now has an easier route to take, as far as ascending the team’s depth chart.

On top of that, and something that shouldn’t be overlooked, Wilson’s special teams experience makes him an even more valuable commodity.

Why Tavon Wilson flames out quickly with 49ers in 2021

So far, at least during training camp, Wilson has been a standout. Yet it’s fair to ask the question of why he’s perennially bounced back and forth between being a reserve player and a fill-in starter, someone essentially on the fringes of being a first-team guy.

This suggests Wilson is OK in a lot of different departments and can start in a pinch, but there’s not necessarily anything overly flashy or impressive about his game. Looking back at some of those Detroit defenses during his four-year stint there, Wilson was solid if not spectacular.

It’s possible Wilson is having success in camp, but whether or not that can carry over into the regular season is anyone’s guess, particularly with him now being on the wrong side of 30 years old.

Can Tavon Wilson steal 49ers’ starting strong safety job?

Tartt has been sidelined at points during training camp with his toe injury, which has led to Wilson getting plenty of first-team reps. And while it’s likely the Niners would prefer Tartt to start, Wilson has made the most of his chances and even caught the eye of Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn:

"[Wilson] started every practice at strong safety and played well. Today, he broke up a pass intended for George Kittle during 1-on-1 drills in the red zone, then nearly intercepted a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo during 11 on 11s. If Jaquiski Tartt never recovers from his turf toe injury, Wilson will replace him in the starting lineup. He made two nice stops against the run yesterday."

Not too far of a reach there.

Read More: 49ers secondary could be a major liability in 2021

But perhaps the bigger endorsement, especially amid a questionable secondary, was seeing how San Francisco’s defensive coordinator, DeMeco Ryans, was singling out Wilson as a budding component of his defense:

"You can tell he’s a true pro, he’s a leader. I love his approach to every day. He attacks every day the right way, does a really awesome job of communicating out there with the guys, making sure guys are all on the same page. And he’s just been, he’s been great in there. So I’m happy that we were able to get Tavon, a really great addition to our team and I like the way he’s working."

Wilson is standing out for all the right reasons.

If Tartt isn’t able to start the year or winds up suffering yet another injury, the 49ers should be able to take comfort knowing they have a player in Wilson who can offer up so much more than what the team’s previous backups were able to do over the last few years.

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