There are a handful of positions on the 49ers’ roster with massive question marks going into the year. Safety is not one of those positions.
While there are some kinks to iron out with starting jobs and whether defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans might deploy a third safety, it’s not a chore to discern which players from the offseason roster are looking at spots on the 53-man come September.
Let’s run through what that group will look like in the preseason and check for potential surprises:
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Ward is a terrific player who does all the little things that make a free safety effective. His range and sure tackling have always stood out, as has his versatility to play up high, in the box and in the slot. Now he’s starting to generate turnovers after struggling in that area for the first six years of his career. Even if he’s not forcing fumbles and pulling down INTs though, Ward is a tremendous player in the back end of the 49ers’ defense.
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The strong safety spot is where there’s some intrigue in the 49ers’ secondary. Moore, a natural free safety, was the frontrunner to earn the SS job after bulking up last offseason. A torn Achilles in the offseason program derailed his 2021 campaign before it could begin though and he wound up missing the year. Now he’s back in action and figures to be in the starting mix again. Former strong safety Jaquiski Tartt was a good athlete with versatility to play multiple spots. Moore figures to provide that versatility as well which may give him the edge in the starting race come Week 1.
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While Moore may be the ‘frontrunner’ going into camp, Hufanga is more than capable of emerging as the starting strong safety for San Francisco. He nearly won the job out of camp last year after battling with Tartt. Hufanga wound up playing 399 defensive snaps per PFF, and had mixed results. He did break up two passes and only missed three tackles, but he allowed 11 completions on 17 passes thrown his way with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those coverage numbers will have to improve if he’s going to see regular action in 2022. Even if Moore wins the starting job, Hufanga is a good enough player to work in as a third safety when Ryans wants to throw a wrinkle at the opposing offense.
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Odum may also get in the mix at strong safety, but the 49ers added him because of his special teams chops. He was a First-Team All-Pro on special teams in 2020. In his four years with Indianapolis, Odum played more than 1,300 special teams snaps per Pro Football Reference. He did play nearly 1,000 defensive snaps, but his career-high came last year when he logged 471 snaps on that side of the ball. He’s certainly a capable defender, though the 49ers would probably like his main contributions to come on their struggling special teams unit.
Leon O'Neal Jr.
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The Texas A&M product had a pre-draft visit with the 49ers before signing as an undrafted free agent. If there was a player who is going to somehow shake up the safety group, he’s probably it. However, he’s more likely headed to the practice squad if he acquits himself well in training camp and the preseason. In four years with the Aggies he posted 161 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks, six interceptions and 12 pass breakups in 40 games.
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Hawkins is another UDFA who played his college ball at San Diego State. He had his best year as a redshirt-senior when he posted 62 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups. He’s another player who could find his way onto the practice squad if he puts together a strong preseason campaign.