The 49ers are hoping their additions to the defensive backfield in 2022 will translate into a better secondary than last year, but questions remain.
There’s no single perfect measurement, in terms of both traditional stats and analytics, to assess how good or bad any team’s defensive backfield is.
It’s made tougher by encompassing two different positions, safety and cornerback, all meshed together to create the secondary. And yet some are certainly better than others despite the challenges of an all-encompassing assessment.
For the San Francisco 49ers, their 2021 defensive backfield wasn’t great and was generally viewed as the team’s primary weakness entering the 2022 offseason. Surprisingly, though, the Niners boasted the league’s sixth-best pass defense last year, surrendering a total of just 3,510 yards through the air.
Granted, the hand-in-glove nature of football and the secondary’s reliance on a stout San Francisco pass rush combined to create this mark. But it failed to convince fans and pundits alike who used the eye test to determine the defensive backfield still needed help.
A lot of it.
So, not surprisingly, the 49ers made their big-ticket NFL free agency signing a cornerback, Charvarius Ward, while also double-dipping in their offseason priorities by landing veteran safety George Odum, who earned a first-team All-Pro nod in 2020 with the Indianapolis Colts for his work on special teams, another Niners’ top need.
Yet all this came at the expense of losing potentially two key contributors in the secondary, nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams, who signed with the Denver Broncos, as well as strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, who remains unsigned but probably won’t come back with Odum now in the fray.
Will the net additions offset the net losses? What about San Francisco’s yet-to-be determined actions in the 2022 NFL Draft? How will those determine the defensive backfield’s overall effectiveness this year?
Most importantly, will this part of the defense actually improve for the 49ers?
Let’s take a deeper look.
49ers should be noticeably better at cornerback in 2022
One can’t stress just how important Ward’s signing will be. Not only does he give the Niners a bona fide No. 1 option on the boundary, he also thickens up the rest of the cornerback depth chart, pushing fellow corners like Emmanuel Moseley and Ambry Thomas down the pecking order.
Now, there is a possible void at nickel with Williams gone. But the initial pre-draft thought here is Moseley would slide in from the boundary on three-wide formations, allowing Thomas to take over outside duties in passing situations.
This might be the better option anyway. Williams, who’ll turn 31 years old this offseason, noticeably declined in his on-field play last season. And to quantify that, Pro Football Focus rewarded him with a 63.3 overall grade in 2021, his lowest mark since joining San Francisco as a free agent back in 2017.
The 49ers could (and should) look to add more reinforcements at cornerback via the NFL Draft, and this year’s class is suggested to be a good one to do that.
But while the Niners may have improved slightly at cornerback, the same shouldn’t be said about their safety room.
49ers see a noticeable drop at safety
Forget the fact his drop in the NFC Championship game. Tartt, when healthy, made San Francisco’s defense a lot better.
As one of the 49ers’ more-underrated contributors, Tartt likely isn’t looking to return to the team that originally drafted him on yet another cheap one-year deal like he did in 2021. Sure, the longer he remains unsigned, the greater the chances the Niners entertain bringing him back.
For now, though, Odum looks to be the primary beneficiary of Tartt’s departure.
Odum, 28 years old, is known for his special teams work. But he’s also been a spot starter, starting 10 games over his four years with the Colts. However, his PFF coverage grades have never risen above 64.1, and that’s not a great benchmark for success. When factoring in Tartt’s 62.1 PFF pass-coverage grade, though, it’s harder to judge.
To quote Niners Nation’s Rich Madrid, though, you’d have to watch the film. PFF grades don’t tell all.
The eye test would surely prompt one to trust Tartt more than Odum, and that same test is the reason why there shouldn’t be too much confidence in San Francisco’s other two potential Tartt replacements, Talanoa Hufanga and Tarvarius Moore, being adequate replacements.
Moore, coming off an Achilles tear last offseason, has been given plenty of chances to assume a starting job since being drafted in 2018 but has failed to do so. Hufanga, despite his own special teams prowess, remains a pass-coverage liability.
So, yes, safety is in a worse situation than before.
So, what’s the verdict on 49ers defensive backfield in 2021?
As far as the easy way out, and without knowing what the 49ers do in the draft, it’s probably going to be a safe bet to say this part of the field will improve in some areas while being weaker in others.
Defending the seam might be a bigger problem with both Tartt and Williams not covering up other defensive backs’ mistakes, while down-the-field targets outside the numbers should noticeably improve with Ward in the fray now.
Of note, PFF ranked the Niners secondary 18th to close out last season, although it pointed out no-longer-on-San Francisco cornerback Josh Norman was a primary culprit why. One probably could (and will) argue the 49ers defensive backfield will be better without Norman by default, and there’s probably some truth to that.
However, barring any notable draft additions, we’d probably expect this greater unit to be only modestly better than it was last season, only hoping the additions of Ward and Odum prove to be the reasons why there’s some improvement.