Every day leading up to the start of training camp, 49ers.com will assess the team's roster as we get closer to the season. In this installment of the 2022 Roster Breakdown, 49ers.com is diving in to the team's secondary and breaking down the defensive backs and safeties.
What is a Defensive Back?
Defensive backs (DBs) are the team's last line of defense. Pass coverage is one of the most important responsibilities a defensive back has during the game as they cover wide receivers and make tackles in order to prevent the opposing team from making a receiving touchdown. They are typically lined up the deepest on the defense.
Different types of defensive backs are:
- Strong Safety (SS): A strong safety often lines up closest to the defensive line out of all of the defensive backs. This position allows to tackle opponents rushing the ball while also covering the pass.
- Free Safety (FS): The free safety is usually the defensive player lined up the deepest. This position is responsible for making sure no offensive opponent gets between them and the end zone.
- Nickelback: This player is typically an extra defensive back. In obvious passing situations, a defensive player will serve as a nickelback for extra pass coverage.
Which Stats are Relevant to Defensive Backs?
- Tackles for loss
- Passes defended
- Pass breakups
- Forced fumbles
- Fumble recoveries
The 49ers 2022 safety and defensive back group is led by veteran Jimmie Ward, who is entering his ninth season with the team. Statistically, Ward had one of his best seasons in 2021 earning a 90.9 Pro Football Focus tackling grade. This year, he is looking for league recognition.
"I think Jimmie is an All-Pro player," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "Jimmie is one of the best football players I've ever been around. Just his instincts, his feel playing that safety position, he is a really great football player. Sometimes accolades don't show up, he just has to keep doing what he's doing right and he'll continue to get better... He doesn't have to worry about that (All-Pro) status, that'll come, he just has to play ball and have fun."
This year, San Francisco awaits the return of Tarvarius Moore, who did not see the field last season due to an achilles injury he suffered in June 2021. Moore played in 16 games in 2020 where he notched one pass defended, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and 52 total tackles.
During this year's free agency, the 49ers signed First-Team All-Pro talent George Odum to contribute to the team's safeties and special teams units. San Francisco also brought in undrafted free agents Tayler Hawkins and Leon O'Neal Jr. to support and add depth behind sophomores Talanoa Hufanga and Deommodore Lenoir.
2021 was a big year for the 49ers secondary. San Francisco entered the season with Ward as a team captain, Hufanga as a rookie, and seasoned veterans Jaquiski Tartt and Tavon Wilson who have left the team in free agency this year.
Ward displayed his leadership and versatility in 2021, logging significant snaps at three different positions: free safety (652), in the box (270) and at slot corner (252). Hufanga swiftly ascended San Francisco's depth chart, making his first start in Week 10 against the Los Angeles Rams last year. He also notched two passes defended, 33 total tackles and a postseason touchdown on special teams against the Green Bay Packers to advance to the NFC Championship.
Overall, San Francisco ranked third in total defense while also being the only team in the NFL to finish top 10 in both rushing and passing defense, in large part due to the performance of the 49ers defensive backs unit.
Defensive Backs Breakdown
Lenoir enters his second season in the NFL this year. After being selected in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Lenoir saw action in 13 games, starting two. He recorded a total of 17 tackles (11 solo) and also defended two passes.
Moore suffered an Achilles tendon injury during last year's OTAs and was unable to play during the 2021 season. In 2020, the defensive back appeared in 15 games and started eight. During that time, he recorded 52 tackles (37 solo), one pass defended, plus a forced fumble and fumble recovery. This season will be Moore's fifth season in the NFL.
Entering the 2022 season, PFF has ranked Ward No. 3 amongst their top-seven safeties out of the slot earlier this offseason. Over three of the last four seasons, the veteran's tackling grade has been above 90.0. His ability to make stops is one of the main reasons why San Francisco's defense gave up only three touchdowns of 30+ yards in 2021.
Last year was one of Ward's best years in the league, starting all 16 games he appeared in. He recorded a total of 77 tackles (44 solo) and missed only two. Ward also defended four passes and had two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. In last season's playoffs, he started in all three games, blocking a field goal attempt in the Divisional Round against Green Bay and notching an interception in the NFC Championship against the Rams.
Hawkins was named a Second-Team All-Mountain West selection, First-Team Pro Football Focus Mountain West Team of the Year, Reese's Senior Bowl Watch List and honorable-mention pick by Pro Football Focus in 2021. He recorded 62 tackles (48 solo), a tackle for loss, two interceptions, 13 pass breakups, one forced fumble and two quarterback hurries in 13 starts in his 2021 season and, according to Pro Football Focus, owned the second-best coverage rating in the country among defensive backs (and No. 1 in the Mountain West).
In May, Hawkins agreed to terms with the 49ers to become an undrafted free agent.
In Hufunga's first year in the NFL, he appeared in 15 games and started in three. During that time, he recorded 32 tackles (20 solo), defended two passes and made a jaw-dropping touchdown on special teams in the 2021 postseason.
During this year's OTAs, Ryans shared his excitement for Hufunga's sophomore campaign.
"This offseason has been eye opening for me just to see Huf and the way he's communicating out there, much better, louder, better communicator," Ryans said. "You see him move faster because things are starting to slow down for him. As a rookie, things are flying, it's hard to figure things out... Huf is definitely ascending in the right direction and I'm happy with where he is because that's what OTAs are about, guys coming in, owning the techniques and trying to get better every day."
At Texas A&M, O'Neal started in all 12 games and ranked third on the team with seven passes defended and tied for fourth with 58 total takedowns in 2021. In May, O'Neal agreed to terms with the 49ers to become an undrafted free agent.
"I want to represent the 49ers the right way," O'Neal said. "That's my main goal. I'm process-oriented. My main goal is to work as hard as I possibly can, and the results happen within the work. That's how I keep my focus."
Entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent, Odum has appeared in 65 games (10 starts) and registered 105 tackles, two interceptions, four passes defensed, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries throughout his four-year career with the Colts (2018-21).
Odum earned AP First-Team All-Pro honors on special teams in 2020 after leading the NFL with 20 total tackles.
"The team brought me in to better the room and compete," Odum said. "I'm going to do my very best, I'm going to give it a go every single day."