The 49ers didn’t have a clear answer at nickel cornerback, but NFL free agency provided the option of signing former Falcons corner Isaiah Oliver.
The San Francisco 49ers’ defensive backfield is going to look noticeably different than it did at the outset of the 2022 season a year ago.
Mainly because the team’s longest-tenured player, Jimmie Ward, is no longer donning a Niners uniform.
Heading to the Houston Texans with his former defensive coordinator, DeMeco Ryans, Ward leaves a sizable void within San Francisco’s secondary. Not only did Ward have the capability to play essentially every position within the defensive backfield, but he also bumped down to fill the 49ers’ void at nickel cornerback a year ago after returning from an early injury and in the wake of fellow safety Tashaun Gipson’s surprising and pleasant efforts.
With Ward gone, the Niners were left with few truly likable options to replace him.
Until the second day of NFL free agency in 2023, of course.
49ers sign former Falcons DB Isaiah Oliver to fill nickel cornerback spot
San Francisco also lost fellow cornerback Emmanuel Moseley to the Detroit Lions, so there were essentially two spots left to fill.
Perhaps the promising play from Deommodore Lenoir in the second half of 2022 encouraged general manager John Lynch and Co. to not worry as much about Moseley departing, but Ward’s departure compounded things quite a bit.
First reported by NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, then corroborated by The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, the 49ers are grabbing former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver to help replenish the secondary:
As Barrows pointed out, the 2018 second-round pick of the Falcons will help the Niners keep Lenoir on the boundary instead of playing on the inside.
Like Ward, Oliver can play multiple spots within the defensive backfield, but serving as a nickel back will likely be his best fit with San Francisco under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
Isaiah Oliver takes a lot of pressure off 49ers entering 2023
Again, reinforcing the reality that two key parts of the 49ers’ defensive backfield have left, adding some veteran experience is going to be beneficial.
Sure, the Niners could have turned to a younger defensive back like Samuel Womack at nickel, particularly after he impressed during last year’s preseason. Yet Womack fell out of favor during the regular season, and a win-now San Francisco team might not want to be patient with his development.
In contrast, and despite Atlanta’s defense being a liability for the last few seasons, Oliver’s 2022 efforts resulted in 37 tackles, an interception and seven pass breakups, and opposing quarterbacks posted a 76.2 passer rating when targeting him, a career-best for the 26-year-old defender.
Oliver’s addition also means that Lenoir will be the least-experienced starter (presumably) at cornerback, and the latter’s own ascent in the second half of last year helps suggest the 49ers defense is much more rounded than it was not long ago.