In the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the 49ers selected cornerback D.J. Reed out of Kansas State University. Excelling in coverage and kick returns, Reed is another versatile defensive back now residing in San Francisco’s up-and-coming secondary.
The eventual two-time All-Big-12 cornerback started his collegiate career at Fresno State. Like most freshman, Reed used his redshirt and then elected to transfer to Cerritos College where he played one season before transferring to K-State.
The 49ers’ outside corners have mostly been 6-foot or taller with the exception of Jimmie Ward, who was not drafted by the current regime. Reed, standing 5-foot-9, doesn’t meet that threshold.
Most think the slot position would be more suitable in this defense for someone of Reed's stature. However, it was reported the 49ers worked him in at safety during rookie minicamp, as well, so they could envision a couple roles for him. Reed mainly played outside corner in college, though, so playing more of a nickel role would be a bit of a transition.
Now, someone with his talent and confidence should adjust just fine, but what will Reed be asked to do?
In this article I will highlight one main thing that jumped out to me in regards to Reed’s game, and show where 49ers current nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams excelled.
On the outside, Reed showed a very solid skillset. Quick feet, good change of direction, and the ability to play the ball in the air very well against bigger receivers.
He showed the ability to read receivers down and be extremely scrappy at the top of routes, something I’m very big on.
The 49ers ask a lot of their slot cornerbacks. While playing near the box, a lot of times they are taking on and evading blockers. I felt this was something Reed struggled with at times.
On a screen play, he was able to elude lead blockers and bring down offensive lineman and Raiders first-round pick Kolton Miller, showing that he can do it and has no problem being physical. But he must be more consistent at this part of his game.
Oftentimes Reed was unable to get off blocks, which created big run lanes for receivers and running backs.
If Reed wants to crack the starting lineup or compete for playing time in the slot, he will have to do so by beating out fifth-year cornerback K’Waun Williams.
Williams signed with the Browns after going undrafted in 2014. An injury in the 2016 preseason and team suspension resulted in his release. After failing a physical for Cleveland, Williams was left off of an NFL roster for that season.
As a member of the 49ers, Williams excelled in the slot last season with a PFF rating of 80.2, ranking him 44th among qualified cornerbacks. The 5-foot-9, 183-pound cornerback plays much bigger than his size.
Williams was stout against the run. Whether it was throwing blockers off of him, or maneuvering his way through the offensive line to make tackles, playing near the line of scrimmage against the run was a strength of his.
Against screens and short passes, he was equally as good. Williams’ ability to close in on short passes and bring down opposing players was evident. Limiting yards after contact at his position on a consistent basis is something that stood out to me.
Here you can see that Williams watches film and knows his keys on when he can shoot. Prior to the snap he switched his stance letting me know he knew exactly what was coming. Great job by the Rams receiver to get a piece of Williams and save some yardage. But Williams’ relentlessness allowed him to get back in the mix and help on the tackle.
In zone coverage downfield, he showed great awareness and the ability to take away multiple options with body position and great zone eyes. The following two plays are great examples of this.
Against the Seahawks, it looks like one of the linebackers made a mistake as two defenders crashed down on one receiver leaving a the crossing route wide open. Williams had the wherewithal to peel off of his man and nearly intercept the pass.
In a true sky defense the slot defender plays seams to flat. If there's no offensive player in the flat, the slot cornerback can sink underneath a vertical pushing route. Williams did a great job of that here, intercepting the pass and recording his first and only interception of the season.
Where I felt Williams was hit and miss, and an area in his game where he stands to improve, is his coverage downfield. If Reed has a chance to beat out Williams, this is where he can open up some eyes.
In Week 10 against the Giants, Sterling Shepard had his way with the Niners' defense to the tune of 11 catches for 142 yards. Most of his work was done in the slot. The 49ers run a lot of underneath zone, so not all of those yards were on Williams, but on occasion Williams was asked to play man press. Shepard was able to lose Williams on a deep corner route.
As you can see, the middle free safety Adrian Colbert helped on the deep route down the sideline, leaving Williams with no support.
On another matchup between the two, Williams was in press coverage and did a great job of fighting through the pick and staying on Shepard’s hip.
Unfortunately, a great pass by Eli Manning combined with an amazing one-handed catch by Shepard, and Williams was again on the wrong end of a big gain.
When playing the Seahawks, almost every play is a scramble drill. Initially this was a good job by Williams running with the wheel – but with a lack of pass rush and Russell Wilson’s scrambling ability, a good technique to use would be to man turn into the receiver so if he stops during the scramble drill, you are connected to him.
There were plenty of good plays by both Williams and Reed in 2017, respectively. The plays in this article are plays that stood out to me for one reason or another.
Confidence, swagger and toughness are a few things that constantly show up with both guys, too. The 49ers really did a great job this offseason of creating competition at all the defensive back spots, even down the depth chart. In all honesty, the battle between Williams and Reed will likely come down to who can be more consistent.
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