Erik Harris the forgotten X-factor in 49ers' crowded safety room

Oh, yeah... Erik Harris is also a potential option for the Niners at safety.

But probably not a realistic one.

San Francisco 49ers safety Erik Harris (35)
San Francisco 49ers safety Erik Harris (35) / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

The 49ers have plenty of potential starting safeties in 2024, but veteran Erik Harris seems to be left out of the discussion.

One of the more intriguing battles to watch when the San Francisco 49ers kick off training camp later this July is at safety.

There are a number of names who'll be top contenders for the starting two jobs: Talanoa Hufanga, Ji'Ayir Brown, George Odum, Malik Mustapha and even Tayler Hawkins.

Oh, and veteran defensive back Erik Harris, too.

There are plenty of "oh, I forgot that guy was on the roster" Niners players entering 2024, and Harris is certainly among them. A long-time starter who broke into the league way back in 2016 as an undrafted free-agent pickup of the New Orleans Saints, which followed a time in the CFL, the 6-foot-2 and 225-pound defender soon switched over to the Oakland Raiders and became a full-time starter for the silver and black in 2019 and 2020.

He also had a two-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons, primarily playing in a reserve role. Over his career, Harris has seen 94 regular season games and started 43 of them, recording 267 tackles, 28 passes broken up and five interceptions during that span.

So, how did he wind up finding his way to San Francisco?

Why did the 49ers sign Erik Harris?

Harris hit the free-agent market in 2023 but didn't immediately find any suitors.

However, in late November, Hufanga suffered a torn ACL that'd end his season, prompting the 49ers to do some reshuffling on both their active 53-man roster and practice squad. Brown assumed a bigger role, while Hawkins would eventually work his way up from the reserve unit, leaving an opening for a new practice squad backup.

A week after Hufanga's ACL tear, the Niners inked Harris to a practice squad spot.

Harris found himself promoted up to the active roster multiple times late in the season, seeing action in three regular-season games and almost exclusively contributing on special teams.

But those efforts were enough to convince San Francisco to sign the veteran to a reserve/future contract entering 2024.

Could Erik Harris actually contend for a roster spot in 2024?

Harris is certainly part of the discussion amid a crowded safety crop this offseason. But the 49ers are almost guaranteed not to consider the 34 year old as a legitimate starter or even as a primary backup.

Instead, the Niners are eyeing the trio of Hufanga, Brown and Mustapha as the primary competitors for the two starting jobs, while Odum should be seen as the go-to reserve in case of injury.

However, Harris stands an outsider's chance of hanging around and finding a spot on the 53-man roster if two very specific things happen.

First, Hufanga's injury recovery will have to linger into the regular season, perhaps resulting in him starting the year on an injured list. Second, Mustapha's rookie development will have to come along slower than anticipated, prompting San Francisco to slate the aging veteran as the No. 4 option out of a probable four players on the depth chart.

What's most likely, however, is for Harris to compete during training camp and in the preseason. But he'll likely be part of pre-Week 1 roster cuts, and it might even be doubtful the 49ers use a slot on the practice squad for him, opting to go with someone younger who can be developed into a longer-term option.

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