49ers roster: Leon O’Neal is promising, has a long way to go

Leon O'Neal Jr. #9 of the Texas A&M Aggies (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Leon O'Neal Jr. #9 of the Texas A&M Aggies (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

The road is always tough for undrafted players, and that’s what 49ers rookie Leon O’Neal Jr. will find out as he makes his transition to the pros.

Strong safety could be a notable problem for the San Francisco 49ers in 2022 in the wake of them not re-signing long-time starter Jaquiski Tartt, who took on a new deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency.

Despite that, the Niners appear to have a contingency plan, one that likely involves starting second-year pro Talanoa Hufanga with another free-agent pickup, George Odum, serving as both a reserve and on special teams.

Where that leaves one of San Francisco’s 2021 undrafted free agents, former Texas A&M defensive back Leon O’Neal Jr., is anyone’s guess.

Leon O’Neal Jr. Defense & Fumbles Table
TacklesDef IntFumbles
*2018Texas A&MSECFRDB686142.00.012525.00100
*2019Texas A&MSECSODB123011413.00.0100.00300
*2020Texas A&MSECJRDB103216482.00.025226.00300
2021Texas A&MSECSRDB123820583.01.028542.51510
CareerTexas A&M1085316110.01.0616227.011210

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 7/14/2022.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound safety could have been selected late in the 2022 NFL Draft, and he even popped up on a Niner Noise pre-draft scouting report for the position as a late-round flier.

Even then, he would have been slated for back-end duties on the offseason roster and would have a long way to go before cracking the 53-man roster his rookie season.

Can he? Let’s find out.

Why Leon O’Neal makes his mark with 49ers in year one

In many ways, O’Neal has the same skill set as Hufanga, but that also means the liabilities are there, too.

Keeping things positive, O’Neal does have some prowess as an in-the-box safety, and his accumulating 10 tackles for a loss speaks to that at a certain point.

If the Niners maintain more single-high Cover 3 looks with the strong safety down towards the line of scrimmage, it would be to O’Neal’s benefit, as he’d essentially serve as another strong-side linebacker with some modest pass-coverage abilities.

And it’s turned into something of a fun thing checking out his offseason workouts:

Why Leon O’Neal struggles with 49ers

Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has gotten away from single-high coverage, which made Hufanga’s own pass-coverage skills a bit of a liability in limited action last year.

Already not a strong suit, O’Neal’s pass coverage should be viewed as even less potent than that of Hufanga, and the rookie doesn’t quite have the playmaking knack Hufanga displayed during his own college tenure at USC and at points in his first year with San Francisco.

Rookie defensive backs tend to struggle anyway, and it doesn’t appear as if the 49ers are going to place a lot of pressure on O’Neal right out of the gate.

In that sense, any struggles could end up turning into some developmental strengths over time.

Chances Leon O’Neal makes 49ers’ 53-man roster in 2022

Again, the undrafted argument applies here. UDFAs always face an uphill fight to crack the regular-season roster.

Hufanga, Odum, Tarvarius Moore and fellow UDFA rookie Tayler Hawkins are all among those vying for a spot on the depth chart, the first two all but guaranteed placement. Along with free safety Jimmie Ward, the Niners likely have room for just one more body.

That’s the spot O’Neal will be eyeing.

Excelling on special teams could be the ticket towards securing that final spot, but he’ll also have to beat out players like Moore and Hawkins between now and Week 1. A strong training camp, combined with a “chip on the shoulder” mentality could go a long way here.

If it doesn’t, a practice-squad designation would certainly be in play even if the rookie would likely be disappointed in it.

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