NFL general managers are often weary of giving praise to rookies. That made John Lynch’s endorsement for first-year safety Adrian Colbert so noteworthy.
“He’s a rookie and I’m comfortable saying this because I know the type of person that Adrian is, but that was a really, really good football game,” the San Francisco 49ers GM said. “He displayed some things in that game that are characteristic of a big-time starter.”
That’s hefty praise coming from a future Hall of Fame safety. Lynch’s comments came in the wake of Colbert’s first-career start in Week 10 against the New York Giants. He played all 66 defensive snaps and went on to post four tackles and a game-high two passes defended. Colbert's most notable play came on a crushing hit against Giants wide receiver Tavarres King to break up a deep pass and force a punt.
But before finding himself in the lineup as a starter, Colbert was an unheralded college defensive back who wasn’t likely to hear his name called on draft day. Colbert played just 22 games over his four-year collegiate career split between the University of Texas and Miami. In his final season with the Hurricanes in 2016, the defensive back totaled 22 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, an interception and three pass breakups in seven games.
Colbert's limited starting experience left minimal game tape for pro scouts to evaluate. And without an invite to the NFL Combine, Colbert was barely a blip on the radar of many media analysts as well. Put simply, Colbert was an unknown commodity.
Colbert secluded himself in the lower deck stateroom on Saturday afternoon last April. On the top floor of the chartered boat were 40 of Colbert's closest friends and family members, eager to celebrate the safety being drafted into the NFL. Colbert's phone rang throughout the lavish party. Several NFL teams teased the possibility of drafting the safety. But one after another, each conversation was nothing more than false hope. As optimism faded, Colbert stepped away from the festivities and began to accept the realistic possibility of going undrafted. The champagne bottles upstairs would have to remain on ice.
He fired off a tweet in frustration. Whether he was selected or not, Colbert knew he'd get an opportunity to prove himself worthy of a spot on a 53-man roster. He'd find vengeance against the teams who strung him along in the process.
Every team that passes on me will regret it....mark my words — AC (@AdrianColbert25) April 29, 2017
Colbert's phone rang again in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft. It was the 49ers, who notified the safety that he'd be the team's final selection with the 229th overall pick.
The festivities weren't in vain after all.
By the start of San Francisco's offseason program, Colbert was immediately buried on the 49ers depth chart behind a handful of veteran corners as well as third-round draft pick Ahkello Witherspoon. As a late-round afterthought, Colbert was well aware that the odds weren’t in his favor.
A string of injuries at the beginning of camp left the 49ers thin at safety. Jimmie Ward, Eric Reid and Jaquiski Tartt all went down with various ailments. That’s when Colbert was approached with the opportunity to change positions. Looking back on it, Colbert’s move from cornerback to safety was one of the 49ers top storylines of the summer.
He already had familiarity with his new position. Colbert played safety at Texas before switching to corner when he transferred to Miami. He didn’t much care where he played with the 49ers, knowing he wasn’t exactly in a position to be choosey. Seventh-round picks were long shots to make the practice squad, let alone the active roster.
“Versatility in the league keeps you here longer,” Colbert said. “I took on the challenge. It was uncomfortable at first, but like anything, it takes time to get back in the rhythm of something, especially when you haven’t played it in a while.”
Colbert went on to intercept two passes early in camp and drew the praise of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh for his aggressiveness and knack for getting to the ball.
Unfortunately, his success was followed by adversity. Colbert injured his ankle during the team’s open practice at Levi’s® Stadium. The injury sidelined him for a majority of the preseason and put his roster candidacy in serious jeopardy.
While other players battled for a spot on the 53-man roster, Colbert was forced to rehab and watch practice from the sideline.
“Everybody else was getting their opportunity to show what they could do, and I wasn’t. I was sidelined. I was barely practicing,” Colbert said. “By the third week, I was kind of stressing because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m a seventh-round pick, and being guaranteed on a team is not a thing.”
Colbert made his return to the field the week of the 49ers final preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers. It was his final audition to land a spot on the roster, and he needed to leave a lasting impression.
On the Chargers second possession of the game, Colbert delivered a punishing hit on running back Kenjon Barner that forced a fumble. If Colbert was truly on the bubble, that play may have been what tipped the scales in his favor.
“He’s relentless in his work ethic and his preparation. I love the way he hits. He’s a very physical football player,” Saleh said. “I don’t know if it’s a chip as much as it is important, where every play, every rep, every meeting is very, very important. He’s very into it. He has something to prove for sure.”
Colbert did his best to treat the morning of final roster cuts just as any other. He worked out at the 49ers team facility, got treatment and passed time by playing video games. Colbert did his best to ignore the various calls and texts from friends looking for updates regarding the safety’s future in San Francisco.
As the 1:00 p.m. PT deadline loomed, Colbert took the approach that no news, is good news – more specifically, the best news. His intuition served him well. Colbert's name wasn't among the team's final cuts, meaning he'd defied the odds and earned a spot of the 49ers 53-man roster.
Even though he was at the bottom of the depth chart at safety, his ability as a gunner on punt coverage helped the rookie find the field immediately.
“That’s one of the main things I knew they wanted out of me was being a good special teams player,” Colbert said. “In college when I wasn’t starting at safety, I was doing really well at special teams. I took pride in that. If you’re not contributing on the defense or the offense, special teams is the only thing that is going to keep you on the roster. I took great pride in that and took it very seriously."
Just like training camp, key injuries during the regular season thrusted Colbert into action on defense. Ward and Tartt went down with broken forearms in back-to-back weeks. Tartt left just 19 snaps into a Week 9 home game against the Arizona Cardinals, and Colbert was called upon to fill in at free safety. The rookie immediately turned heads while making a diving play to breakup a deep sideline pass intended for Cardinals speedster J.J. Nelson.
“He has the 40 time to do that,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said of the rookie. “Lots of guys in the NFL have the 40 time to do it. But, it also goes with instincts. So, you've got to be out there, you’ve got to play, you’ve got to learn how to track the ball and watch the quarterback. That was a very good play that he made.”
Tartt, who was having a breakout season in his own right, was placed on a season-ending Injured Reserved the following week. In a matter of weeks, Colbert had risen from a third-stringer to San Francisco’s starting free safety.
“I’m excited that the coaches put trust in me to start,” Colbert said. “Everything happens for a reason. I feel like everything that’s happened from camp until now has been preparing me for what’s to happen in the future.”
In an unforeseen rookie campaign, Colbert amassed 30 total tackles, five passes defended, a forced fumble and allowed just 0.34 yards per coverage snap through 16 weeks, ranked 16th best among NFL safeties according to Pro Football Focus.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound safety showed that he was far more than raw athleticism.
“He’s got great range in the middle of the field,” Saleh said. “He’s a professional safety. He’s a professional football player in that he can go red line to red line and cover you.
“It just shows that he is an NFL-caliber safety.”
After the conclusion of the season the coaching staff named Colbert as the Thomas Herrion Memorial Award winner, given annually to a rookie who took advantage of every opportunity. Colbert’s meticulous work ethic played a major role in his distinguished rookie season and earned the respect of the 49ers locker room - in particular, San Francisco’s longest tenured and most respected veteran.
“There aren't a whole lot of expectations of a seventh-round pick,” 11-year veteran Joe Staley said of Colbert. “But he came in every single day, was the first guy in and the last guy out. That’s cliché, but it really was true with him. Every single day I get here, he was already here for an hour, just working on anything he could do. His opportunity came to play, and he really just stepped up and took advantage of it.”
Colbert was one of the 49ers most pleasant surprises in 2017 and appears to be San Francisco’s steal of the draft. His emergence as a rookie will make him a candidate to start next season, even with the return of Tartt, Ward and potentially Reid.
“He got himself prepared so that when he had an opportunity, he shined," Lynch said.
It’s just the beginning of his young NFL career, but so far, Colbert has surpassed everyone's expectations, except for his own, of course. But he knows the best is yet to come.
229... don’t ever forget that — AC (@AdrianColbert25) December 29, 2017
“I will never really settle because I’ve got a lot of work to do. A lot of things that need to be fixed to get to where my teammates need me to be and my coaches want me to be,” Colbert added. “I just want to grow and be a better player so I can help my team, help my defense get to a championship. That’s it. Championship state of mind. I’m not really worried about any personal accolades right now. I just want to help this team get back to where it needs to be.”