49ers hope NFL draftee Ji’Ayir Brown is next defensive centerpiece

Ji'Ayir Brown #16 of the Penn State Nittany Lions (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ji'Ayir Brown #16 of the Penn State Nittany Lions (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The 49ers need a long-term stud at safety, and they hope that rookie Ji’Ayir Brown of Penn State can be just that after being selected in Round 3.

Most San Francisco 49ers fans were probably scratching their heads at their team’s selection of Michigan kicker Jake Moody at the tail end of Round 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft.

And while that was quite the shocker, even if it filled a need for the Niners, it probably shouldn’t draw as much attention as the selection San Francisco made earlier.

Grabbing former Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown after trading up to No. 87 overall.

If the remaining cast of 49ers draftees either flops or fails to impress much, this year’s class can still be a major win if Brown winds up panning out well.

Why did the 49ers take Ji’Ayir Brown in 2023 NFL Draft?

A major reason why the Niners had a void was that veteran defensive back Jimmie Ward departed via free agency for the Houston Texans, leaving a massive void within San Francisco’s secondary. Not only did Ward primarily play free safety, but he was also capable of playing slot corner and both boundary positions, too.

Ward was aging, though, so the idea of getting both younger and cheaper is there.

And, unlike Ward’s entry into the NFL way back in 2014, it’s not likely Brown has to be forced into a predominant role right away.

The 49ers already have veteran Tashaun Gipson at free safety, and they can opt to go with second-year pro Samuel Womack at nickel corner if they’d like.

“Everybody in the building wanted that guy,” general manager John Lynch said after the selection, via 49ers Webzone. “[He was] our top target of the guys we identified that we thought had the best chance of being there in the third, where we picked.”

What is there to like about 49ers new DB Ji’Ayir Brown?

Brown’s ability to play all over the defensive backfield will serve him well, and that versatility could ultimately mean he’s a day-one starter in some regard, even though he doesn’t have to be.

Either way, he was productive during his three years with the Nittany Lions, finishing his collegiate tenure with 10 interceptions, 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Ji’Ayir Brown Defense & Fumbles Table
TacklesDef IntFumbles
2020Penn StateBig TenJRS65161.00.0000100
*2021Penn StateBig TenSRS136112731.00.0611218.71521
*2022Penn StateBig TenSRS135618747.04.5411428.5031012
CareerPenn State122311539.04.51022622.6193013

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 4/29/2023.

Check out one of the scouting reports on Brown from NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein:

"Versatile defensive back who has shown the ability to line up over the slot, play as a down safety and patrol the outfield as a Cover 1 safety ready to read and range. The lack of speed and explosiveness Brown showed at the NFL Scouting Combine won’t help his draft stock, but he’s a fiery run defender and plays with undeniable coverage instincts. He has an excellent motor that fuels him throughout the game, as well. He needs to play with a little more discipline or veteran quarterbacks and play-callers will bait him into mistakes. Brown’s versatility and football character could help him eventually become an NFL starter."

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A physical player, Brown can make up for some of the speed concerns with solid positioning and anticipation, and that’s going to be a prime bonus for a defense that’s still predominantly operating in zone despite losing coordinator DeMeco Ryans to the Texans’ head-coaching job during the offseason.

Granted, young defensive backs frequently take a season or two to fully acclimate to life at the NFL level, and it might be that kind of timeline for Brown.

However, if he has a Ward-like career, the investment will be an excellent one.

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