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San Francisco 49ers

Three Niners who have exceeded expectations and three who must step up

Jon Chik

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Running Back Matt Breida

Inevitably, all 32 teams in the NFL are going to have at least a few breakout stars and some guys who fall short of expectations, and San Francisco is no different. With a quarter of the campaign in the books, we’re looking at the Niners’ three most pleasant surprises and three guys who need to step up.

Pleasant Surprises

1. RB Matt Breida – Making it clear that it wasn’t a fluke when he averaged 4.4 yards per carry while taking the rock 105 times last year, Matt Breida hasn’t just kept the Niner ground game from becoming a non-factor; he’s been the team’s clear-cut MVP through the first four weeks. Exploding out of the starting blocks by racking up 313 yards and a score on 41 carries (8.6 yards per carry) while also hauling in 10 receptions for 85 yards, Breida enters Week 5 as the league’s third-leading rusher.

Not too shabby for a 23-year-old Georgia Southern alum who didn’t even hear his name called on Draft Day about a year-and-a-half ago, and even after San Francisco’s strong showing at the 2017 NFL Draft, the Niners’ most impactful player from that group may turn out to be the undrafted Breida, in both the short- and long-term.

While the Niners have yet to give him more than 14 touches in a game this season, the quicker-than-a-hiccup running back looks like a man with something to prove, running decisively behind an offensive line that has been formidable but not spectacular and looking like a threat to take it to the house every time he carries the rock.

In 146 career carries, Breida is averaging an eye-popping 5.33 yards per carry, and if he keeps producing at or anywhere near this level, the “small sample size” argument will go by the wayside, and Breida’s status as one of the elite running backs in this league will be emphatically confirmed.

2. LB Fred Warner – At the very least, San Francisco knew it was getting a versatile linebacker-safety hybrid who possessed the speed and length coveted by Robert Saleh. Four games into the former BYU standout’s young career, it looks like they’ve gotten so much more.

Playing like a man possessed, Fred Warner has been all over the field during the first quarter of the season and has exceeded expectations despite having a lot on his plate: He picked up the slack during Reuben Foster’s two-game suspension, he’s posted double-digit tackles in all four games and he’s already been entrusted to relay play calls to his teammates. He leads the team with 32 tackles, which is more than double the amount posted by Elijah Lee, who is second with 14.

While it’s not really Warner’s forte and he might be too good in pass coverage to take him out of that role on obvious passing downs, at what point is the do-it-all linebacker called upon to blitz the quarterback more often to provide a boost to the pass rush?

Given the Niners’ inability to turn up the heat on the quarterback, and since Warner’s Achilles heel is arguably that he occasionally over-pursues, it might be worth a shot to let him off his leash and get after the quarterback, at least once in a while.

Either way, there’s clearly tremendous upside with Foster, who may go on to vastly outperform his status as a third-round draft pick.

3. DL DeForest Buckner – 49er Faithful had high hopes for San Francisco’s third-year defensive tackle, and even so, he’s arguably given the defense more than what was expected.

After posting just three sacks in 16 games a season ago – despite delivering a league-high 19 quarterback hits – DeForest Buckner has already racked up 3.5 sacks and has seemingly found the extra gear he needed to drop the signal-caller before he releases the ball.

Buckner, who is 14th in the league in sacks, has been one of the few bright spots on a unit that’s surrendered 118 points, which is seventh-worst in in the league, and it’s scary to think where the defense – and especially the pass rush — might be without their hard-charging defensive tackle.

While his 74.1 PFF grade and No. 34 ranking out of 106 interior defenders doesn’t quite scream “elite” (it falls into PFF’s “good” range), it doesn’t change the fact that the Oregon product is on pace for 14 sacks, despite not getting a ton of help from his linemates.

The scariest thing about DeFo for opposing offenses? Even with such stout production in the season’s early goings, it feels like he still hasn’t come close to hitting his ceiling.

Need to Step Up

*Note: We’re giving a pass to players whose performance has likely suffered/still is suffering due to injury.

1. DE Solomon Thomas – Coming into the season, 49er Faithful pegged Solomon Thomas as something of a breakout candidate after an underwhelming rookie season. It still hasn’t materialized for last year’s third overall selection, who has received a 61.9 grade from Pro Football Focus, which puts him as the league’s No. 65 edge defender out of 99 qualifiers.

While the 61.9 mark technically falls into the “average” category according to Pro Football Focus’ scale, San Francisco didn’t take Thomas third overall with visions of mediocrity.

Despite moving from “Big End” to “Leo” in the offseason – a move that was designed to benefit Thomas and put him in position to be more of a playmaker — the Stanford product is still seeking his first sack of campaign while tallying just five tackles.

Just as perplexing as Thomas’ lack of production has been his head-scratching lack of playing time, as the 280-pounder hasn’t received significant snaps and has essentially become just another face in San Francisco’s oft-rotating defensive line. Even when he’s gotten onto the field, Thomas has been a ghost, notching just five tackles through the first four games.

There are plenty of reasons for the unit’s failures this season – poor play in the secondary, subpar tackling, a difficult schedule, etc. – but the Niner defense desperately needs more from Thomas after selecting him with the third overall pick.

However, given Thomas’ lofty draft status, the fact that he’s played only 18 pro football games between 2017-18, and the underperformance from everyone not named DeForest Buckner on the defensive line, Thomas arguably should be primed for more snaps with a mandate to sink or swim. At some point, the Niners really need to find out what the kid can do with a healthy helping of playing time.

2. WR Trent Taylor – Last year’s fifth-round pick emerged as Jimmy Garoppolo’s best friend in 2017, effortlessly separating from coverage with just a single cut, showing utter fearlessness by running crisp routes over the middle and hauling in critical third-down receptions.

Trent Taylor looked ready to emerge as one of the Niners’ biggest steals in what was a strong draft for the franchise. At the very least, the slippery wideout was all but certain to once again maintain his role as a dependable safety blanket who could move the chains on third down.

Instead, the second-year wideout is nowhere to be found in 2018, notching only nine receptions for 64 yards and no touchdowns a quarter of the way through the season. His best game of the campaign came in Week 1 when he posted season-highs in receptions (4) and yards (28).

It’s not all on Taylor; he’s only been thrown to 15 times and rarely seems to be the primary target, so perhaps his number should be called more often, especially on third down, where he excelled last season. Still, the Louisiana Tech product needs to create his own opportunities by rediscovering his exceptional separation skills.

Maybe it was at least somewhat unfair to place such high expectations on an undersized wideout who was drafted No. 177 overall before last season, but Niner fans cannot help but be overwhelmed with what they’ve seen (or, perhaps more appropriately, haven’t seen) from Taylor in 2018.

3. CB Ahkello Witherspoon — In most cases, young cornerbacks are expected to experience some peaks and valleys when they come into the NFL, as they play an incredibly demanding position in a league that’s more pass-happy than ever.

Still, it’s been tough to watch Ahkello Witherspoon regress to the extent that he has through the season’s first four games, as the 2017 third-rounder from Colorado was looking like a star in the making down the home stretch of last year.

Predictably, Witherspoon was targeted early and often when Richard Sherman was on the field during the campaign’s first two-and-a-half games since teams still tend to shy away from the former Seahawk, so that naturally resulted Witherspoon giving up more receptions and yards. Unfortunately, Witherspoon has had no answer, grading out as PFF’s No. 106 cornerback out of 109 qualifiers with a grade of 42.3.

With Sherman still injured, K’Waun Williams playing well while entrenched as the team’s nickelback, and Jimmie Ward once again struggling, Witherspoon isn’t about to be pulled off the field, and he’ll simply have to fight his way through this rough patch and rediscover the confidence that he exuded during last season’s stretch run.

Witherspoon, who received a 74.5 mark from PFF a season ago, is better than what he’s shown, and the Niners and their fans have no choice but to ride it out and hope he finds his game sooner rather than later. Like the rest of San Francisco’s defense, Witherspoon gets a reprieve with a Week 5 matchup against Arizona, which has produced a meager 9.25 points per game, dead last in the league by a wide margin.

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: Weekly Wink, Winning Streak, Mailbag

Brian Peacock

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© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Tuesday, December 18

  • Guest: Nick Winkler
  • Mailbag
  • Impact of winning vs draft position
  • Free agent options Sean Lee and Anthony Barr
  • Nick Mullens’ trade value

 

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: Rapid React To Week 15 Overtime Win vs Seattle Seahawks

Brian Peacock

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© Kyle Terada -USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Monday, December 17

  • Takeaways and game balls from San Francisco’s 26-23 victory
  • Richard Sherman revenge game
  • Special teams accounts for 20 points
  • DeForest Buckner has maybe his best game in San Francisco
  • Updated draft position

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San Francisco 49ers

49ers Film Room: Rookie Safety Marcell Harris’ second NFL start

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49ers Film Room: Marcell Harris
© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A week after a rough debut, San Francisco 49ers strong safety Marcell Harris made major strides in his second NFL start. Locked on 49ers’ Chris Wilson breaks down the rookie defensive back’s game film from the Niners’ Week 14 matchup against the Denver Broncos.

With their playoff hopes in the rear-view mirror, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch set a youth movement in motion for the remainder of the 2018 regular season. Proven veterans like Pierre Garcon, Malcolm Smith and Earl Mitchell have been relegated to the bench or shut down for the remainder of the year due to injury, opening the door for the 49ers’ batch of rookies and second-year players to prove their worth.

One of those rookies is strong safety Marcell Harris, San Francisco’s sixth-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The 49ers believe they received the defensive back at a discount, as Harris’ draft stock suffered after he missed his senior season due to a torn Achilles tendon. Harris — who started just nine games at the University of Florida — is a raw talent who played best as a box safety in college, and was projected to be a mid-round prospect prior to his injury.

After beginning the 2018 NFL regular season on injured reserve, Harris was activated by the 49ers last month, but was primarily used on special teams over his first three games. However, injuries to three of San Francisco’s safeties thrust Harris into a starting role against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13. Unfortunately, Harris didn’t impress in his starting debut, which is somewhat expected from a player with limited college action who hadn’t seen the field in nearly two years.

But with the rust knocked off and another week under his belt, Harris looked like a different player against the Denver Broncos. After missing three tackles the previous week, which was reflected in his 25.6 tackling grade from Pro Football Focus, Harris racked up seven tackles and received a tackling grade of 80.1 from PFF in Week 14. While he’s far from a complete project, Harris demonstrated the athleticism, instincts and attitude that made the 49ers’ front office choose to take a flier on the talented prospect.

Let’s break down some of San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris’ Week 14 game film, and highlight both the good and the bad from the rookie’s second NFL start:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Off the Edge in Run Defense

49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh lined Harris up close to the line of scrimmage for the majority of Sunday’s contest. In fact, Harris played on the line —  in 7-technique or off the edge — as often as he lined up in a traditional deep safety role.

When on the line or stacked next to the 49ers’ two inside linebackers, Harris worked closely with the team’s front four linemen against the run — particularly with defensive end Solomon Thomas. On our first play, Thomas does most of the work by blowing up the pulling guard, which forces running back Royce Freeman outside. After taking a moment to properly diagnose the play, Harris gets around the edge and reaches the ball carrier before tight end Matt LaCosse has time to cross the formation to impact the play:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Saves DE Solomon Thomas

While Thomas made Harris’ job a lot easier in our first example, on the following play, Harris makes up for Thomas’ mistake in run defense. When the ball is snapped, right tackle Jared Veldheer goes straight to the second level while fullback Andy Janovich passes in front of quarterback Case Keenum toward the wide side of the field. Thomas decides to split between the two blockers and run down the line of scrimmage, until he realizes the Broncos’ end around is heading toward the area he vacated. Thomas leaves Harris all alone on the outside to defend the run, with a pair of blockers between the safety and the ball carrier. But Harris quickly diagnoses the play, sidesteps Veldheer and heads toward the edge. Once Janovich overcommits to the outside, Harris cuts behind him and quickly brings wide receiver Courtland Sutton down for a loss:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris as a “Robber”

Although Harris has fairly limited football experience, he knows how to play as a “robber,” and excelled at the position during his time in Florida. Saleh has the 49ers line up in a two-deep look, as both linebacker Fred Warner and nickel corner D.J. Reed use outside leverage in an attempt to bait Keenum into attacking the vacant middle of the field. As the ball is snapped, Reed gives wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton an unimpeded inside release, as Harris crashes down to jump the route. Keenum keys in on Hamilton, and by the time he recognizes the 49ers’ defensive play, pressure forces the QB to exit the pocket and throw the ball away:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Comes up to Deliver a Big Hit

When Harris lines up deep in a two safety look, he doesn’t always look comfortable in pass coverage, but he’s quick to head downhill and make his presence felt by an opposing receiver. With the 49ers in Cover 2, Keenum steps up and hits Sutton on a short pass across the middle. The wideout avoids linebacker Elijah Lee with a quick move inside, but then finds a willing tackler in Harris, who travels down from deep in the secondary to deliver a big hit on Sutton. The rookies quickly get face-to-face to share some choice words but the situation doesn’t escalate, as Harris demonstrates the desired combination of intensity and self-control teams look for in a hard-hitting defender:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris’ Football Instincts Prevent a Big Play

If you simply watched the television broadcast of this play, you’d think Harris made a dangerous mistake in coverage, but this was actually one of Harris’ top plays of the day. Thinking run, Harris initially attacks the line of scrimmage, which leaves him shallow in the flat, but in a decent position to defend against the lone receiver in his vicinity. However, after Lee bites hard on the play-action, he totally loses his bearings. Lee turns backward, searching for a receiver in the secondary, and misses Sutton crossing in front of him, despite Warner’s warning. Luckily, Harris peeks back and sees Sutton crossing the field uncovered. As Keenum readies himself for the pass, Harris turns and quickly catches up with the wideout as he streaks down the sideline. With his intended receiver covered, Keenum checks down to the flat vacated by Harris, but miscommunication between the QB and his running back causes the pass to fall incomplete:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Gets Pancaked by RB Phillip Lindsay

Blitzing off the edge wasn’t one of Harris’ strong suits in college, as the safety logged just a single sack over his three seasons at the University of Florida. Harris has the physical ability for the job — particularly when he faces a 5-foot-7, 184-pound running back — but his technique needs improvement. Instead of firing off the line, Harris hesitates slightly when LaCosse lets him run free, leaving RB Phillip Lindsay to block the blitzing safety. Then, instead of running through the smaller blocker, Harris hesitates again before making a move to the outside. Lindsay engages Harris at the perfect moment, and plants the 208-pound safety into the turf:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Doesn’t Save DE Ronald Blair

This time, Harris bites on the play-action as defensive end Ronald Blair — similar to Thomas on the previous play — splits between the tackle and fullback and runs down the line of scrimmage. Harris tries to change direction once he realizes his mistake, but slips, allowing left tackle Garett Bolles to take a shot at the safety. With Harris caught inside, wide receiver Tim Patrick is free to follow his lead blocker for a Broncos first down:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris’ Poor Technique in Zone Coverage

At times on Sunday, it was evident that Sunday’s matchup was Harris’ second NFL start, and that the young safety is learning a new defensive scheme. Harris does well in getting outside the No. 2 receiver, although free safety Antone Exum would have appreciated if his fellow safety redirected Sutton on his way to the flat instead of allowing the wideout to run unimpeded up the field. With no receivers in his area, Harris looks for work, but he turns away from the quarterback instead of simply sinking back to help cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Harris’ poor technique on this play creates a number of problems. By letting Sutton run free up the field, Exum is forced down to defend the hole behind the sinking inside linebackers. With Exum focused on Sutton, Witherspoon has to be prepared for a potential home run post route by Hamilton, but with Harris trailing the wideout, Witherspoon thinks he’s free to commit to the deep middle as soon as Hamilton cuts inside. Meanwhile, Harris bails on his deep coverage, as he sees Witherspoon in position to defend Hamilton’s post route. Unfortunately, Harris turns back to the QB at the worst possible moment — too late to see Keenum release the pass in his direction and too late to see Hamilton cut outside toward the sideline. With Harris spun around and Witherspoon overcommitted deep, an accurate pass would have meant a long reception for the Broncos, but luckily, Kennum air-mails the ball out-of-bounds:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Gets Picked in Man Coverage

With San Francisco lined up for a double-A-gap blitz, Harris is in man coverage against LaCosse, while Reed is tighter to the line against wide receiver River Cracraft. Both defenders are lined up with inside leverage to protect against a short pass over the middle, given the vacancy left by the blitzing linebackers. Both receivers release to the inside after the snap, but Cracraft quickly cuts between the two defenders in an attempt to distance Harris from his man. A small shove from the wideout is enough to create ample separation for LaCosse, who looks back for the pass as Harris struggles to recover. But instead of hitting his open tight end, Keenum locks on to wide receiver Andre Holmes, and as the quarterback tries to buy extra time by climbing the pocket, he’s hit from behind by edge rusher Cassius Marsh:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Ends Denver’s Fourth-Quarter Drive

When the pressure was on during a key fourth-quarter drive, Harris was at his best, as the rookie made crucial stops on three consecutive plays. On second down, the Broncos task Patrick with blocking the safety in order to free up an extra lineman to double-team 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. After the snap, Harris uses his strength and proper leverage to push Patrick back and off to the side, before disengaging and filling the hole, bringing Freeman to the ground for a short gain:

After failing to learn their lesson on second down, Denver attempts to use Patrick against Harris on another inside run on third down. Patrick doesn’t have a chance, as Harris beats him off the line and into the Broncos’ backfield. Patrick grabs Harris and tackles him to the ground, but not before the safety brings Freeman down in the backfield for a loss:

On fourth down, the Broncos decide to get the ball into the hands of their most electric playmaker, Lindsay. Since it worked before, Denver tries another pick play against Harris, who lines up across from the running back. The Broncos flood the boundary side of the field with all five receivers, but Keenum’s first look is Lindsay, who runs a “flat-7” concept with LaCosse. Both Harris and Lee are on the same page, as Harris cheats toward the outside, and Lee steps up to defend against a potential draw play. As the ball is snapped, both Lindsay and Harris sprint toward the flat. LaCosse tries to release outside and into Harris’ path, but Witherspoon engages and pushes the tight end back inside, as Harris fights through the rub in Lindsay’s direction. Keenum hits the back of his drop and fires the ball to his running back, but as soon as Lindsay catches the pass, Harris spins him to the ground short of the sticks.

For more on San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris, check out Friday’s Locked on 49ers podcast, as host Brian Peacock and guest Chris Wilson discuss the rookie’s breakout performance in Week 14.

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