49ers Traded Up on Day 2 to Draft Steve Wilks’ ‘Dude’

Ji'Ayir Brown, San Francisco 49ers

Getty Ji'Ayir Brown, now of the San Francisco 49ers, intercepting a pass as a member of the Penn State Nittany Lion.

When the San Francisco 49ers traded up in the third round of the 2023 NFL draft, surrendering a third, fifth, and seventh-round pick to secure pick 87 from the Minnesota Vikings, fans knew John Lynch and company were targeting a special player, but there wasn’t a consensus as to who among the fanbase.

As it turns out, that player was Ji’Ayir Brown, the ball-hawking safety from Penn State, who not only came to San Francisco for a top-30 visit but, according to Lynch in his Day 2 media availability session, was a consensus favorite among the team’s scouts, coaches, and especially defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who consider the collegiate Nittany Lion “his dude” in the class.

“He’s a baller. I think he’s got the components of what I think makes up a Niner,” John Lynch said via 49ers Webzone. “We had a consensus, from coaches to scouts, it was all around the building. He really solidified that with this tape, but then he came here on a 30 visit, and he’s just got this infectious personality. I know something has been made about him not running a real fast 40. Our R&D department has some of the fastest times amongst the safety stack, so I think he plays fast.

“He’s good up towards the ball. Ball production, 10 interceptions over the last couple of years. He’s just a really good football player, and then when you add the person, he’s a team captain, like [Defensive Coordinator] Steve Wilks said, ‘that’s my dude right there.’ Everybody in the building wanted that guy. Our top target of the guys we identified that we thought had the best chance of being there in the third where we picked. We didn’t think he’d be there at 99, and I didn’t think he’d be there. [Minnesota Vikings GM] Kwesi [Adofo-Mensah] said no once, but then we got back on the phone. Thank you to Kwesi and the Vikings for letting us get up there. We are really happy to have Ji’Ayir Brown.”

Though the 49ers did lose long-time safety Jimmie Ward to the Houston Texans in free agency, they brought back incumbent starter Tashaun Gipson to pair up with 2022 breakout star Talanoa Hufunga. With Brown added to the mix alongside special teams ace George Odum and Carolina transplant Myles Hartsfield, the 49ers should continue to field one of the top safety groupings in the NFL this fall.

Ji’Ayir Brown has a Great Visit With the San Francisco 49ers

When Brown was asked about his top-30 visit with the 49ers during his own media session post-Day 2 of the draft, the PSU product shared Lynch’s sentiment that the two parties seemed to click right from the jump.

“The visit went great. I talked to everybody around the facility, and it really felt like home,” Brown said via 49ers Webzone. “It gave me a similar version to how Penn State felt, just a family-oriented environment. I had a great visit in San Francisco, and I knew from the time I left the visit that it was the best visit I had been on, and that’s where I belonged.”

Fortunately for Brown, he landed where he belongs, and the 49ers ended up with a very interesting safety to solidify the back end of their defense, even if he spends his rookie season learning as much as he plays.

Kyle Shanahan Believes Brown Landed in a Great Situation

Unlike some third-round picks, who landed on teams who need them to play full-time roles right away, Brown has the benefit of joining a safeties group that has a pair of incumbent starters returning in 2023, Gipson and Hufunga. In the opinion of Shanahan after Day 3, this situation should allow Brown to learn from great mentors during his rookie season.

“I think it is really good when you have someone like Gip there to watch,” Shanahan said via 49ers WebZone. “Someone who has done it for a while, who has done it and succeeded in this league when his skillset was at the top of his game, and as he’s gotten older, you’ve seen nothing change. Gip, with the pro he is, when you can sit and watch that it really helps you learn how to play.”

After discussing Aaron Brooks’ status as a rookie, where he learned under Laken Tomlinson before becoming a full-time starter in 2022, Shanahan noted that San Francisco routinely plays three safeties and usually has four active on game days.

“You can have three safeties on the field at once,” Shanahan noted. “Safeties are always up, you need a guy to play special teams. You usually have four safeties up per game, two are playing and those other two are your special teams demons, but just on one injury, they have to know how to play safety, too. When you look at a guy like [S] George Odum, I think he’s one of the best special teams players in the league who also can help us at safety. Now we are bringing in another guy who we all think can be a starting safety in this league as soon as that makes sense for the Niners. In the meantime, we think he can be a difference-maker in all the other parts too.”

While only time will tell what role Brown plays in 2023 and how much he sees the field alongside or in place of Gipson and Hufunga, it’s clear the 49ers have placed him in a situation to succeed.

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