D.J. Reed could be a busy man on Thursday night. The San Francisco 49ers rookie defensive back is expected to start at nickel in the team’s preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys. That’s because K’Waun Williams is out with an ankle injury. Once the first-team defense calls it a day, which will likely be after just one series, Reed is likely to replace Adrian Colbert at free safety.
The fifth-round pick out of Kansas State has embraced the challenge of learning both positions during camp. Reed played corner in college but is yet to take a rep on the outside since joining the 49ers. He appears to be a quick learner. Reed is currently the 49ers second-stringer at both nickel and free safety. Now he’ll get his first crack at putting it on tape in a game environment.
“He’s coming along well,” Robert Saleh said. “He fights his tail off. He’s got a great mindset, a great mentality. We’re asking him a lot for a rookie to learn free safety and nickel. He’s doing a good job with it.
“He’s taking this opportunity, and he’s absolutely running with it. (I’m) excited about where he is. (I’m) excited to see him play. That’s where everything is going to kind of come to fruition, hopefully.”
Reed has a pair of interceptions thus far during camp. One came during 1-on-1s. The other still stands as the 49ers top defensive highlight through 11 practices. Reed made a leaping interception on a deep sideline pass from C.J. Beathard to Dante Pettis. In addition to the contested catch, Reed also had the wherewithal to keep both feet in bounds to secure the takeaway.
Colbert has taken notice of the rookie’s strong play. San Francisco’s starting free safety is well versed in the journey for late-round picks trying to earn a role on Sundays. Colbert was a seventh-round pick in 2017, but still won the starting job by the end of his rookie season. He sees a similar hunger in his protégé.
“I’ve seen D.J. grow from OTAs till now,” Colbert said. “He’s taking on two positions. That can be hard for a rookie coming in, especially in his position. He’s taking it all really well. I’m excited to see how he’s going to play.”
Part of what helped Colbert’s rise up the depth chart was a highlight-reel hit during last year’s preseason finale. He forced a fumble and simultaneously had everyone saying, “Who’s that guy?”
Whether it comes at nickel or free safety, Reed hopes to produce a similar moment against the Cowboys.
“Wherever they want me, I’m just going to play hard and compete,” Reed said.