Following a remarkable 2019 season, it has been no surprise to see the San Francisco 49ers frequently mentioned as a destination for marquee players looking for a change of scenery.
When reports of All-Pro safety Jamal Adams requesting a trade from the New York Jets emerged last month, the Niners were on the list of teams to which Adams was allegedly happy to be traded.
Operating with limited cap space and with extensions for the likes of George Kittle and Trent Williams to consider, any move for Adams looks unlikely, as the 49ers' long-term solutions at safety appear to already be on the roster.
Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt each enjoyed career years in 2019, with the former earning a three-year extension this offseason.
Ward and Tartt did an excellent job interchanging between the free and strong safety roles as the former high school teammates each finally delivered on the promise they have demonstrated since entering the NFL in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
However, the 49ers' ability to re-sign Tartt – a free agent next offseason – may hinge on how the salary cap is impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic, though they may be more willing to let him walk if 2018 third-round pick Tarvarius Moore produces further signs of development after an intriguing 2019.
Despite playing under a quarter of the defensive snaps, Moore delivered flashes of his remarkable athletic ability – he was the fourth-ranked SPARQ athlete in the 2018 safety class –as well as awareness and playmaking skills to suggest he can be a difference-maker in the secondary.
With D.J. Reed recently suffering a torn pectoral, Moore could see increased snaps in the slot having played corner as a rookie. As the 49ers face up to some difficult personnel decisions that are the price of success, the performance of a player who has the tools to make life a lot easier for the front office in 2021 will be an underrated subplot of the 2020 season.
Moore's incredible athleticism was a clear selling point to the 49ers ahead of the 2018 draft while they have also taken advantage of his versatility during his two seasons in the league.
However, the physical traits Moore boasts would be largely immaterial if he did not possess the awareness to go with them. Moore plays at a position where the ability to read the game is pivotal, and he has displayed significant promise in that area.
In the 2019 season opener with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Moore's combination of awareness and athletic ability saved a likely touchdown at the end of the third quarter.
Playing as the single-high safety as the 49ers defended a play-action rollout pass, Moore spotted Jameis Winston's eyes turn to tight end O.J. Howard. He swiftly transitioned out of his backpedal as Winston released the pass and broke downhill with tremendous burst that allowed Moore to close quickly on Howard and deliver a punishing form tackle.
Given the momentum Howard had built up, he likely would have succeeded in beating Richard Sherman – the lone defender in his path – for the touchdown.
It was an unspectacular but critical play on a drive that Moore later ensured ended with no points scored. A more memorable contribution against an NFC South opponent came in the thrilling Week 14 shootout with the New Orleans Saints.
Moore was again in the spotlight at the end of the third quarter as the Saints, trailing 35-33, attempted a trick play deep pass from Taysom Hill on 4th-and-18. The throw fell incomplete as Moore utilized extremely physical coverage on Tre'Quan Smith that would have normally drawn a flag, however, much to the dismay of the Saints and coach Sean Payton, there is no pass interference rule on fake punt plays.
The understanding of the rules Moore demonstrated in the heat of a massive game in the NFC playoff race illustrates how well he has been coached and the intelligence he possesses to stay composed and apply that coaching in high-pressure situations, which he frequently excelled in during the 2019 campaign.
Moore's controversial pass breakup in New Orleans was a vital play on a huge stage. Though his defensive snaps were sporadic, Moore's ability to step up when it mattered most was a theme of his 2019, as he used his awareness and athleticism to produce key plays in the games that started and ended the 49ers' campaign.
Four plays after his tackle on Howard, Moore kept the Buccaneers out of the endzone on a short fourth-down attempt and should have had an interception the other way.
Moore again perfectly read the eyes of Winston and the route of Chris Godwin, whom he beat to the spot with another excellent break on the ball, securing the turnover on downs but failing to haul in the interception.
The same instincts came to the fore in the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs, who were held to a field goal in the second quarter after a red-zone stop by the 49ers to which Moore was integral.
Inching down slightly from his position in a two-deep look on third down, Moore locked his eyes on Darwin Thompson in the backfield, instantly breaking diagonally downfield as the running back cut his route inside. Slowing up slightly to avoid early contact with Thompson and a pass interference penalty, Moore arrived at the catch point at the perfect time to bat the ball away and force fourth down.
Moore looked to have made a clinching play in Super Bowl LIV in the fourth quarter, with the first interception of his career seemingly putting the Niners on the brink of glory. Again operating out of a two-deep look, Moore, Tartt and K'Waun Williams all broke quickly towards Tyreek Hill as Patrick Mahomes telegraphed a throw to his top wide receiver.
With the ball thrown behind Hill and tipped up into the air, Moore showcased excellent instincts and body control to get down to his left and make the interception.
While the 49ers' Super Bowl hopes crumbled thereafter, the playmaking prowess Moore has intermittently shown should give them confidence he can be an integral part of the defense, though there remain aspects of his game that require work.
As his hit on Howard in the Tampa Bay game proved, Moore can tackle well and frequently does so. It is his consistency in terms of discipline and approach that still need improvement.
Moore has already succeeded in staying disciplined in the open field during his still fledgling NFL career, stopping this pitch from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett in the 2018 win over the Seattle Seahawks from ending in a touchdown.
Having motioned across the field with the receiver, Moore kept his eyes locked on Wilson and the ball until the last second while maintaining a small enough gap to Lockett to enable him to get across and stop the wideout from reaching the end zone.
Similarly, Moore has previously reaped the rewards of taking the correct approach to the ball-carrier in the open field.
His decision to attack downhill quickly on this third-down run in the 2019 win over the Cincinnati Bengals may have been a relatively simple one, but it forced Giovani Bernard to flatten his angle to the sideline, where Moore stopped him short of the marker with a strong tackle.
Yet Moore's aggressiveness has not always paid dividends. A week later against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Moore was punished for being too hasty in getting downhill while defending a screen pass to James Washington as he underestimated the speed with which Mason Rudolph delivered the ball and was forced to work back upfield for the tackle.
A costlier mistake came when Moore took another bad angle on a 76-yard touchdown catch and run from Juju Smith-Schuster in the third quarter.
In an excellent position to make the play having come across the field from outside the opposite hash mark, a split second's hesitation from Moore as Smith-Schuster slowed and bent his run to the sideline proved a key error of judgment as the Steelers star raced untouched to the endzone.
Following the injury to Reed, there is a chance the 49ers make greater use of Moore's diverse skill set and deploy him in coverage in the slot more regularly.
Man coverage is an area in which there have been clear signs of potential from Moore, whose successive pass breakups against David Moore in the fourth quarter against Seattle in 2018 helped force overtime.
However, he has proved vulnerable to receivers who display quickness at the start of the route, with Anthony Miller gaining clear separation against Moore in the 2018 meeting with the Chicago Bears by getting him to bite on a jab step to the left.
Allen Robinson beat Moore in the fourth quarter in similar fashion with a magnificent stem that saw him sell fakes to the right and left to get open for Mitchell Trubisky, only for Moore to recover ground and force a fumble that gave the Niners a chance to win the game late.
While he made amends against Robinson, Moore's struggles in defending agile pass-catchers played a significant part in the Niners' Super Bowl downfall.
On third-and-10 and lined up against Travis Kelce, Moore produced a panicky response to the tight end's decision to fake to the right and bend his route upfield.
Moore stretched out his right arm to attempt to stay in touch with Kelce but still found himself out of position and, unable to get his head turned to find the ball, could not legally prevent Kelce from catching the ball. Following the pass interference penalty, Mahomes found Kelce to reduce the 49ers' lead to 20-17.
Both the interception and the penalty against Moore will live long in the memory for the 49ers after a second painful Super Bowl loss in eight seasons. However, as San Francisco's brass assesses their roster going into the 2020 campaign, it should be remembered that, when Moore was on the field for defensive snaps, the positives outweighed the negatives.
Moore proved he can have a significant influence on games operating as a deep safety or in the box. His issues in man coverage in the slot are holding him back from developing into the kind of chess piece Adams rapidly became after entering the NFL and Ward and Tartt proved themselves to be last year.
Yet the awareness he has demonstrated in other aspects suggests he can learn from previous mistakes and fix those problems.
Should he do so, Moore could soon become another success story from a 2018 draft that produced Mike McGlinchey and Fred Warner and fill the void a Tartt departure would leave.
For a team facing the financial complications that have come with their swift return to prominence, a breakout year from Moore in 2020 would make a potentially tricky 2021 offseason a great deal simpler.
Media courtesy AP Images