When the San Francisco 49ers traded up to select Ji’Ayir Brown with the 87th overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft, fans knew that John Lynch must have felt very strongly about how the Penn State product would fit in new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ scheme.
But how? With both of their incumbent starters, Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga, back, there wasn’t a specific hole on the defense for Brown to fill, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to spend his rookie season on the bench. No, according to defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks in an interview with reporters during OTAs, the team really like what they’ve seen from Brown so far and hopes to get the PSU product on the field this fall to capitalize on his ball skills.
“When you look at a guy like who has 10 career interceptions in college — usually, the guys who are always around the football are going to get the football,” Bullocks said via The Athletic. “And it really doesn’t stop when they get to the NFL. They’re usually around the ball as well.”
Explicitly asked what about Brown the 49ers liked, Bullocks noted that some players are just built to play in San Francisco.
“He has our DNA that we’re looking for on defense,” Bullocks said. “We’re looking for a guy that’s physical, that’s smart, that can finish. When you look at Ji’Ayir, he’s versatile. He can line up on all three levels of the defense. He can line up on the line of scrimmage. He can rush off the edge. He can drop back a level and play man coverage. He can play zone as well. And he can also drop back into the post and show that range and go get the football.”
Barring injury, Brown’s versatility should help him to see the field in 2023, as the 49ers did use three safeties fairly often in 2022 and may again this fall.
The San Francisco 49ers Played Plenty of Safeties in 2022
Though Gipson and Hufanga played 96.73 and 96.08 percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps in 2022, respectively, the 49ers did play three safeties a fair bit, with Jimmie Ward logging 510 defensive snaps and the trio of Tarvarius Moore, George Odum, and Dontae Johnson combining to play 97 more.
Now granted, those numbers are skewed since Ward played slot cornerback for much of his on-field run in 2023, a role that is expected to be filled by Atlanta Falcons transplant Isaiah Oliver, but there should still be plenty of opportunities for Brown to see the field in 2023 if Wilks and Bullocks opt to run three-safety sets.
Bullocks Believes Tashaun Gipson is a Perfect Role Model
In 2022, Gipson not only proved that he could still be a starting-caliber free safety in his 11th professional season, a fact made all the more impressive considering he started the season on the practice squad but also could serve as a valuable resource to Hufanga, who freely complemented his on-field partner for helping him to become an All-Pro.
In 2023, Bullocks hopes that Gipson’s wealth of experience can help to ease Brown’s transition into the NFL, too, as he explained in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area.
“It’s awesome to have a vet, a guy with starting experience who knows how to play the game,” Bullocks said via NBC Sports Bay Area. “Especially like Tashaun Gipson. I think this is his 12th year coming up. He’s been an All-Pro safety, he knows how to do it at a high level, he knows how to take care of his body.”
Though the 49ers would clearly like to pair up Brown and Hufanga long-term, Bullocks believes his promising rookie could learn a thing or two from his third-year counterpart too, as the USC product is one of the more exciting safeties in the league.
“But the difference with him playing with Talanoa Hufanga, you can tell how close they were from a communication standpoint on the football field,” Bullocks added. “Huf had grown as a football player, now we’re looking at Tashaun, I’m telling Ji’Ayir, ‘Hey I want you to stay in both of those guys’ hip pockets and learn from those guys.’ Physically and mentally as well.
“Looking at Tashaun, he does a good job taking younger guys up under his wing and coaching them up. Really, Tashaun, he’s a coach on the field, and to have a player like that to be a coach on the field, because I might not always be there, that helps a lot.”
Regardless of how many snaps Brown plays as a rookie, the 49ers have assembled an ideal safety incubator with a proven track record of producing one All-Pro safety outside of the first and second rounds. If Brown can join Hufanaga on that prestigious list, it will be just another feather in Lynch’s drafting cap.