The 49ers enter 2023 well-stocked in just about every unit on the field—especially defensively, where the front is aggressive and sack-happy, and the linebackers are the best in the NFL. The secondary is not quite on that level, but they’re among the best groups running, and were ranked ninth overall by Pro Football Focus heading into the season.
There is one hole in the Niners’ pile of defensive backs, though—nickel corner, where Jimmie Ward bolted to Houston to join former San Fran defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. The hope had been that Isaiah Oliver, brought over from Atlanta this offseason, would definitively win the job but that … just didn’t happen.
So the Niners are trying to figure out how to fill the hole. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said last month that replacing Ward will not simply fall to Oliver, but will be a job for a sort of “Rolodex of players.”
And over at Bleacher Report, the suggestion is that the Niners add a veteran name to that Rolodex: 34-year-old Casey Hayward, another former Falcon.
49ers Have No Clear Slot DB
It’s not an ideal situation, of course, but the 49ers do need to figure out how to defend the slot, if it is not going to be Oliver. He is still listed as the first-stringer on the depth chart, followed by A.J. Parker and Qwuantrezz Knight. But Knight is on the practice squad and Parker was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury last week.
Thus, the logic of BR’s suggested pursuit of Hayward.
“With neither (Parker nor Knight) available on the active roster, it might be wise to pick up a veteran who could step in,” the article’s author, Andy Ballentine, wrote.
“Casey Hayward is starting to age out of the league at nearly 34 years old, but he was solid in six games with the Atlanta Falcons last season. His inside-out versatility would make him a smart addition to the Niners’ secondary.”
Indeed, Hayward may have already aged out of the league. He started his career with Green Bay and played for the Packers for four seasons. He bounced to the Chargers for four years, where he was a Pro Bowler for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and spent the last two seasons with the Raiders and then Atlanta.
He led the NFL in interceptions with seven in 2016.
Expect 49ers to Jostle DBs Into New Roles
Wilks did say last month that it might not matter much who the 49ers have listed at nickel corner—they could simply move players into the slot, he said, depending on who is playing well.
The team experimented with playing cornerback Deommodore Lenoir in the slot during the preseason, and asking guys to handle something outside their normal role is a likely outcome here.
“I think you have to always look at, ‘OK, we need our best guys on the field,’ and it depends on right now who’s playing the best,” Wilks said. “If Ambry or Womack is playing better, of course, we’re going to move Demo back inside.
“So I think it’s a luxury that you have these options. And what we’re trying to create once again is just a competition across the board.”