Following Tuesday's practice, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh addressed the media for the first time since Super Bowl LIV. Saleh discussed Javon Kinlaw's acclimation to the NFL, the competition at right cornerback and a number of other storylines through the first week of training camp. Here are six takeaways from Saleh's media availability.
1. Competition at Right Corner
Last season, the 49ers saw Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon man the right cornerback position opposite Richard Sherman. Heading into camp, Saleh revealed there are no guarantees heading into 2020 and it's an open competition for the starting role.
Jason Verrett is another name in the mix for the starting corner spot. Last season, Verrett appeared in just one game and played four defensive snaps before being placed on Injured Reserve the following week. Verrett saw reps with the first-team defense during Monday's session. Saleh mentioned he is encouraged by the early performance of Verrett in camp and if the corner can stay healthy, is another candidate to try to win the job.
"The corner spot opposite Sherm, …we're trying to give guys opportunities to go win that job," Saleh said. "As far as Verrett is concerned, he's been looking good. He looks a lot more comfortable. He looks a lot more confident. It's just a matter of him getting back into the feel of it. It's been a while for him to where he's been able to put together a full training camp, so he's off to a good start."
2. Depth at Nickel Cornerback
K'Waun Williams is coming off of another standout year in his fifth season with the 49ers. The slot corner limited opposing quarterbacks to a 68.9 passer rating when targeted and allowed just one touchdown on 70 targets in 2019. Williams missed both of the 49ers padded practices while dealing with calf tightness. With D.J. Reed being signed by the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco is thin at the nickel corner position.
The 49ers signed cornerback Jamar Taylor to a one-year deal back in July, who has seen first-team reps in Williams' absence. Throughout his seven-year NFL career, Taylor has spent time with the Miami Dolphins (2013-15), Cleveland Browns (2016-17), Arizona Cardinals (2018), Denver Broncos (2018), Seattle Seahawks (2019) and Atlanta Falcons (2019). Saleh believes his experience through a number of schemes could benefit the 49ers going forward.
"Glad Jamar is here. Losing D.J. Reed hurt just because of all his flexibility and versatility that he's had for us," Saleh said. "But, Jamar, he made a play today in practice that, he's seen it from our offense a few times and he played the play. Wasn't his play to make, but he still made the play just because he's seen it so much. With those veterans, them having experience understanding football, you're not teaching them the basics of football. You're trying to get them to a level 301 or 401 of teaching. He's very smart. He's been reliable. He works his tail off and he's off to a pretty good start, also."
3. Early Impressions of Javon Kinlaw
Early reports from camp have highlighted rookie Javon Kinlaw's transition from college to the Pros. In a self-scouting report, the 6-foot-5, 319-pound defensive tackle revealed to continuously making improvements through each of the 49ers training camp practices. Guard Laken Tomlinson has made for a welcomed challenge for the rookie as the two have battled in a number of head-to-head drills and full-team work. Saleh believes the rookie will continue to adjust to the speed of the NFL with the aid of the 49ers bevy of talent along the defensive line.
"Like every rookie, it's just a different feel when you get on the practice field, especially when you go against an offense like ours who moves at such a fast pace, who make you run as a defensive line," Saleh said. "It's not a power game that you've got to play, it's more of a speed game. For him, he's like every rookie. It's the fourth day of camp. Legs are probably getting a little bit heavier, but we're excited to have him. He showed a lot of explosive movements through individual drills in the first ten days and he is a very large human being, very powerful man. He just needs to continue to grind and lean on the veterans in that room and continue to get better every day."
4. Picking Up the Slack
Speaking of Kinlaw, the 49ers don't except the rookie to become the immediate heir to DeForest Buckner's workload. The team will look to each member of the defensive line to help carry the load of the Pro Bowl defensive tackle. That also means that guys will need to be healthy and available to replace some of Buckner's production and maintain the dominant play the unit displayed in 2019.
"Losing Buck is a big deal. We all love Buck, and not just the football player, but all the things that he did off the field, as well as the leadership he provided," Saleh said. "But as a group collectively, no one person is going to replace Buckner's production. Everyone's just got to elevate their game a little bit more and find ways to produce in their own way, but as a unit, they can remain strong and continue to be dominant like they were a year ago."
5. Emphasis on Defense
In nine of the last 10 seasons, the 49ers have selected a defensive player in the first round of the draft. Since 2015, five of those picks were along the defensive line. Since 2017, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have focused their attention on the importance of a counter to the quarterback position and continued the trend with the drafting of Solomon Thomas, Nick Bosa and more recently, Kinlaw. Saleh agrees with the 49ers emphasis on a formidable pass rush and their ability to elevate the performance of the entire defense. That philosophy was evident with San Francisco's top-ranked passing defense in 2019.
"Kyle and John, they've always had that philosophy. I've always had that philosophy," Saleh said. "You look at Kyle and going through the offensive side of the ball and recognizing what gives him problems, and it's always a very disruptive front. You look at John Lynch, who had been a safety in this league and recognizing that when he was in coverage, it was a lot easier to cover when the quarterback held the ball for less than three seconds versus when he was back there baking a pizza. When you look at an offensive system, the quarterback is the best football player on the team and the only group that single-handedly can affect that quarterback is a really good pass rush.
"Unless you decide to manufacture pressure on the quarterback, but then you've got to have a tremendous back end. That's where it goes back and forth. When you can rush four and manufacture great coverage in the back end, and that quarterback is disrupted by the four men in front, you can create a very sound defense that eliminates explosives and makes teams earn every single yard. You can play a very consistent style of football with them. We always say rush and coverage go hand in hand and here it does for sure."
6. Standout Safety
Defensive back Tarvarius Moore made several standout plays during Tuesday's practice, including two pass breakups during 1-on-1 drills. With Jimmie Ward holding down the starting spot at free safety, Saleh anticipates getting the third-year defensive back more involved in the defense in 2020.
"Tarvarius is a very versatile asset to the group," Saleh said. "Trying to find ways to get him on the football field are very important to us. He's got tremendous speed. He's got great awareness. He's smart. He knows what to do. There's always that possibility to continue using him, especially with all these offenses that are going with ten personnel, or they've got these backs that are very shifty out of the backfield, where they're pretty much like slot receivers. So, there's obviously a role for him, even though he might be behind Jimmie. He still has a role with this football team."