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49ers Position Battles Begin at OTAs: Defense

All 49ers on FanNation 5/25/2023 Tom Jensen
© Provided by All 49ers on FanNation

This year for the first time in the Kyle Shanahan Era, a great secondary coach helped select talent in new Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks. He identified Isaiah Oliver as “the best nickel in the league” and Oliver has impressed early. So have draft picks Ji’Ayir Brown and Darrell Luter Jr., who may become starters by the second half of the season. If so, Wilks will have hand-picked at least three of the 11 starters.

The Niners want competition and they’ve got it this year. Every position could have surprising cuts.

Defensive Line (9)

Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead, Drake Jackson, Robert Beal Jr., Clelin Ferrell, Kevin Givens, Javon Kinlaw, Kalia Davis

Bubble: Kerry Hyder Jr., T.Y. McGill, Austin Bryant, Spencer Waege

Hargrave should transform the line, but the edge opposite Bosa is a question mark that puts the production of the collective front four at risk. Hargrave is optimized only if all four pistons are firing together.

The competition for the last few roster spots is crowded. Hyder has had success in the system but is now 32. Davis is coming off his medical redshirt year and is an X-factor. McGill closed the year well. Bryant will need to prove himself in camp. Waege produced great numbers at North Dakota State and has quick get off but would seem to be a practice squad candidate.

Drake Jackson put the jacked in Jackson in retooling his body and adding upper body power in the off-season. No doubt this was at the Niners direction, but the need is speed edge. Bulking up would lean toward an outside-inside hybrid role, or a plan to have him loop inside often. We’ll see how it plays out.

The Niners lack certainty at speed edge. Beal Jr. is a pure speed rusher and a project. They have the cap room to go shopping. Fans are hoping for Yannick Ngaouke, Leonard Floyd, or other name vets. This is the usual spring game of chicken where teams hope prices go down as edges refuse to sign at a discount and the clock ticks. A few signings could lead to a run at edge.

The Niners may want to evaluate what they have first and then determine if they need to sign a veteran free agent late to fill the speed edge role.

Linebacker (5-6)

Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Marcelino McCrary-Ball, Oren Burks, Jalen Graham, Dee Winters

Bubble: Demtrius Flanagan-Fowles, Curtis Robinson, Mariano Sori-Marin

The departure of Azeez Al-Shaair creates an open slot, with McCrary-Ball positioned as the next man up. Special teams standout Burks has carved out a role for himself. The competition is who wins the final two spots, with the two rookies challenging veteran Flanagan-Fowles. Graham has shined early. At TCU, Winters proved he was an effective blitzer, which is a skillset Wilks values highly.

Defensive Back (5)

Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir, Isaiah Oliver, Darrell Luter Jr., Samuel Womack

Bubble: Qwuantrezz Knight, D’Shawn Jamison, Ambry Thomas

The top four are locked in. Womack is a clear favorite for the final roster spot, particularly given that he has the versatility to play nickel or outside. Knight is a talented corner but has a highly capable group ahead of him. Jamison adds value as an excellent punt returner. Thomas apparently peaked in his rookie year and is on the outside looking in.

Safety (4-5)

Talanoa Hufanga, Tayshaun Gipson Sr., JiAyir Brown, George Odum

Bubble: Myles Hartsfield, Avery Young, Tayler Hawkins

Odum is one of the league’s best on special teams and that creates a difficult roster choice. Hartsfield brings versatility as a hybrid that can play corner and safety, and is another player hand-picked by Wilks. However, last year’s roster only had four slots at safety.

I can see Wilks advocating that safety needs to expand to five, but then where is the roster slot taken away elsewhere? The defensive line was at nine last year and has no room to cut down to eight. Linebacker could drop to five, but that could sacrifice a special teams ace in Burks or a rookie the team is high on in Winters. On offense, tight end can drop to three, the other positions don’t have room for movement.

So Wilks may be faced with a difficult choice, you can only keep one of Hartsfield, Burks, or Winters. I’d expect he would choose Hartsfield. Camp injuries could delay having to make a choice.

Special Teams (3)

Jake Moody, Mitch Wishnowsky, Taybor Pepper

Bubble: Zane Gonzalez

After spending pick no. 99 in the draft on Moody, there’s no way the Niners cut him. Gonzalez will use the opportunity to showcase himself to the league.

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