49ers roster: 3 undrafted free agents who could start in 2022

Arizona State Sun Devils offensive line Dohnovan West (61) Mandatory Credit: Imagn Images
Arizona State Sun Devils offensive line Dohnovan West (61) Mandatory Credit: Imagn Images /
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Leon O'Neal Jr., Texas A&M Aggies
Leon O’Neal Jr. #9 of the Texas A&M Aggies (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

49ers UDFA No. 1: S Leon O’Neal Jr.

It’s hard to say whether or not that missed defensive stand in the NFC Championship game is what finally did Jaquiski Tartt in. Or was it just time for a change in the complex mind of head coach Kyle Shanahan? No matter what explanation was given for the hesitancy to lock Tartt down, the timeframe for both seems rather coincidental.

Nonetheless, come August, there’ll be a “new sheriff in town.” The only remaining question is, “Who will it be?”

Seems like a rather important question when considering the team’s future moving forward.

Currently under contract, the Niners have four potential suitors who could pair alongside starting free safety Jimmie Ward at the beginning of next season: Talanoa Hufanga, Tarvarius Moore, George Odum and undrafted rookie Leon O’Neal Jr.

The rookie, O’Neal, started 48 games in college and is a big-bodied defender who plays lights-out against the run. Though he has some deficiencies against the pass, O’Neal has great instincts in breaking down the play as it develops. Moreover, he makes the proper adjustments when he feels he’s fallen short in coverage and holds himself accountable for every setback.

In most cases, picking the former Aggie to start over a committee that’s already in place would be quite the long shot. However, when it comes to selecting someone in the group to win the job outright, not one of the aforementioned players gives a warm and fuzzy feeling.

With that being said, regardless of what happens between now and Week 1, the playing field appears to be leveled. O’Neal could pull ahead of the pack quickly with a consistently strong training camp, but he could also stand alone early on due to a lack of competition at the position.

A lot can happen in the next couple of months, but if you weigh the variables, the starting job could be his to lose.

So the real question is, how bad does he want it?

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