49ers 2021 Roster Preview: Secondary

The injury histories of the slated starters in the secondary means the depth of this group could be tested throughout the season.
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With the 49ers starting training camp tomorrow, now is the time to wrap up our look at the 49ers roster for 2021 by taking a look at the secondary.

Jason Verrett

When injuries to Richard Sherman forced Jason Verrett into the starting lineup, the veteran took full advantage. While Verrett has dealt with injuries throughout his career, none of that showed up in 2020 as he was able to play a career high 802 defensive snaps.

Verrett’s ability to be a lockdown man corner was huge for a 49ers defense that struggled all season to generate a pass rush with Nick Bosa and Dee Ford out of the lineup. Those injuries forced Robert Saleh to utilize the blitz more often than at any point in his tenure with the 49ers which required the need for man coverage in the secondary.

Verrett would finish 2020 with 60 tackles -- a career high -- and 2 interceptions while allowing a quarterback rating of only 76.2 on throws into his coverage.

San Francisco was able to bring Verrett back with a 1-year, $3.6 million contract.

Emmanuel Moseley

Originally joining the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2018, Moseley would work his way into the starting lineup for nine games in 2019 and start 2020 as one of the 49ers top two cornerbacks.

Injuries would force Moseley out of the starting lineup in the middle of the 2020 season, and the play of his replacement would keep him on the sideline for all but 175 snaps during the second half of the year.

The concern with Moseley is his ability to stay healthy. He was injured in his NFL debut against the Oakland Raiders in 2018 and struggled again with injuries in 2020. In three NFL seasons, Moseley has a high of only 576 snaps in a season.

The 49ers re-signed Moseley to a 2-year, $9.384 million contract. While the numbers look impressive, Moseley’s cap hit is very low for 2021 and the dead cap for 2022 should he be released is under $2 million.

K’Waun Williams

San Francisco was able to re-sign Williams for 1 year, $2,377,500 during free agency.

Williams was one of the first free agents signed by the 49ers after John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan took over, and has been one of the best secondary players the past four years.

Slowed by injury throughout 2020, Williams was limited to a career low 284 snaps and allowed a quarterback rating of 81.9

Dontae Johnson

Primarily an outside cornerback throughout his career, Johnson was moved inside after injuries sidelined Williams and Jamar Taylor. In his first start at nickel corner against Buffalo, Johnson struggled in zone coverage. Johnson would hold up much better the next week against Washington.

Ambry Thomas

Thomas played for Michigan as a true freshman, and in 2019 was named the Wolverines’ Skill Position Player of the Year. Under the coordination of Dan Brown, the Michigan defense was very heavy with man coverage, and Thomas excelled, showing the ability to line up outside and in the slot effectively. In addition to his duties at cornerback, Thomas returned kickoffs and even played some offense for Michigan, tallying two receptions for five yards and a rush for eleven yards in 2018.

Deommodore Lenoir

Lenoir was a three-year starter for the Oregon Ducks, his most productive season coming as a sophomore when he finished with a career best three interceptions and 12 pass break ups. Much like fellow 49ers draft pick Ambry Thomas, Lenoir was rarely challenged because he showed the ability to shut down the best receivers in the Pac 12, including current New England Patriots receiver N’Keal Harry.

Jimmie Ward

Following the 2019 season, the 49ers gave Ward a new 3-year, $28.5 million contract to return. While he may not make many big plays, he is terrific at limiting the opponents from making them as well, and that’s his primary job.

While Ward would miss a chance for an interception that might have changed the outcome against New Orleans, he would come up with two big forced fumbles a couple of weeks later in an upset victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

The 849 snaps played by Ward in 2020 were the most the seven-year veteran has played in his career, and he finished with 73 total tackles, third best on the 49ers. Ward’s ability to slide down from his normal safety position and cover a slot receiver or tight end when in Nickel or Dime situations will provide a lot of flexibility and allow DeMeco Ryans to disguise the coverages.

Jaquiski Tartt

Tartt is one of the best safeties in the NFL when healthy. Unfortunately for the 49ers, the six-year veteran has missed 24 games the past four seasons and has never played a full 16-game schedule.

The veteran played a career low 373 snaps in 2020. The highlight of his season came in the season opener against Arizona when he intercepted a Kyler Murray pass, the first turnover by Murray in his young career against the 49ers.

In 2020, Tartt finished with 30 tackles, the one interception, and four passes defensed

Marcell Harris

Harris made four starts in 2021 and finished with 37 tackles, three passes defended, two forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered

The 2018 sixth round draft pick has struggled early in his career with missed tackles due to being a little overaggressive but showed a lot of improvement in this area, reducing his missed tackles to a career best 9.8 percent.

Tony Jefferson

Jefferson broke into the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals in 2013 after signing as an undrafted free agent. New 49ers senior defensive advisor, James Bettcher was the outside linebackers coach with Arizona at the time before being promoted to defensive coordinator. This gives the 49ers additional intel on the type of player and person that Jefferson is.

The veteran has not played in a game since tearing his ACL during Week 5 of the 2019 season while with the Baltimore Ravens. He will be competing for roster spot at strong safety.

Tavon Wilson

Originally a second-round draft pick of the New England Patriots, Wilson would make only four starts with the club before moving on to the Detroit Lions for four seasons and then joining the Indianapolis Colts for 2020.

Wilson has primarily been a rotational play throughout his career, starting only 45 of the 125 games played in his career. Last season with Indianapolis saw much of the same as he made only two starts while playing 422 snaps, 203 of those coming on special teams.

Talanoa Hufanga

Hufanga was named a consensus First-Team All-American and the Pac 12 Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020. Hufanga suffered two broken collarbones, a shoulder separation and had concussion issues during his time at USC. While his talent would have put him much further up the draft order, those injuries allowed him to fall. Despite the injury history, this was the perfect spot to take a risk on a player that has shown the ability to be a very strong player who has health concerns.

In just six games in 2020, Hufanga proved himself to be a play maker with 62 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 pass breakup and 2 forced fumbles.

Tarvarius Moore

The 2018 third-round draft pick was entering the final year of his rookie contract. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn Achilles during the final OTA practice of the offseason and will miss the season.

2021 Outlook

Verrett, Moseley and Williams are slated to be the starters on the outside, with Tartt and Ward at safety.

The injury histories of the slated starters in the secondary means the depth of this group could be tested throughout the season. To this point in his career, Verrett has been able to play at least 13 games in a season on only two occasions, 2015 as a member of the Chargers and last season.

It’s a similar situation with Williams, Moseley and Tartt. Williams has never played a full season; the 15 games played in 2019 is a career high. Likewise for Moseley who played only 175 snaps over the second half of 2020 and Tartt who has played only 36 games the past four seasons.

Thomas may be able to push Moseley for the starting role opposite Verrett during training camp. Lenoir and Johnson will also provide good depth on the outside, as well as in the slot.

At the safety positions, the Harris, Hufanga and Jefferson will be competing for the backup role behind Tartt. Meanwhile, Wilson looks to be the primary candidate behind Ward at free safety.

It will be especially interesting to watch how the 49ers utilize Hufanga throughout training camp and the preseason. The rookie spent time as a single high safety in college, but was also utilized at times in a linebacker type role similar to how the 49ers used Marcell Harris from time to time last season and Eric Reid back in 2017.