Ji’Ayir Brown’s role with 49ers may require development
The 49ers’ plan with safety Ji’Ayir Brown may require some time for development, which would explain the small logjam they’ve created at the position.
San Francisco traded up to No. 87 in this year’s draft to ensure they snagged the Penn State safety. He figures to slot in as the free safety alongside Talanoa Hufanga, but veteran Tashaun Gipson is presently atop the depth chart after leading the team in interceptions last season and re-signing on a one-year deal.
Then there’s free agent addition Myles Hartsfield, a free safety who did a little bit of everything on defense during his time with the Panthers.
Ideally Brown would step in and replace longtime FS Jimmie Ward, who signed with Houston in free agency. However, a piece from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that included some insightful nuggets on each team’s draft class might explain why the 49ers took Brown despite their crowded safety room.
The 49ers got a starting-level safety in Penn State third-rounder Ji’Ayir Brown, but some scouts see him as more of a true, downhill-driving safety than a replacement for Jimmie Ward, who excelled in nickel corner coverage. Teams I’ve talked to think San Francisco might want to add a slot corner to balance out the secondary.
Former Falcons CB Isaiah Oliver should take care of the slot corner portion of that issue after joining the 49ers in free agency. Second-year CB Samuel Womack will also be in the mix there.
For Brown though it would be ideal if he could eventually handle the responsibilities of being a free safety who could also move down and cover in the slot the way Ward did. He has all the physical tools to do that, it’s just not something he did regularly at Penn State.
Perhaps the plan for San Francisco is to allow the 2023 campaign to be a development year for Brown where he has a role on defense, but not necessarily as a starting safety. They can feel out what he can and can’t do while helping him along as a FS who can move down near the line of scrimmage and cover when needed.
It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he picks that up quickly and claims the starting job in Year 1. The 49ers appear set on their roster though just in case Brown does need some time to establish himself as that type of player.
The good news is the talent is there and his college coach James Franklin raved to Fowler about how Brown approaches the game. Again, via Fowler:
“Does a lot of things well, great instincts, smart football player, makes plays on the ball, tremendous leader, charismatic leader and aligned with the staff,” Franklin told me.
The tools are all there for Brown. It feels like a matter of when more than a matter of if he’s capable of becoming the versatile FS the 49ers are looking for to replace Ward.
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