One of the more curious aspects of the San Francisco 49ers' 2020 draft was that they did not use a pick on a defensive back despite a perceived lack of depth at cornerback and safety.
However, they did sign an intriguing prospect who could aid their cause at the latter position as an undrafted free agent.
Alabama's Jared Mayden was viewed as a draftable prospect by many, with NFL Network's
Daniel Jeremiah revealing he had the former Crimson Tide defender in his top 150.
And there is plenty on Mayden's college tape to suggest he has a chance to make the final 53 on what is an extremely deep 49ers roster.
The Niners do have backups behind starting safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt in Tarvarius Moore and Marcell Harris. Moore impressed in Super Bowl LIV, picking off Patrick Mahomes in what looked at the time to be the decisive play of the game. He can move around the defense and play the single-high role as well as down in the box or at cornerback in a pinch.
Harris does not possess such versatility, and that is where Mayden may have the edge over the former Florida Gator. Mayden constantly rotated around the defensive backfield for Alabama. He played the deep middle in single-high and two-high looks and operated in the box and as a slot corner.
He heads into the NFL listed as a strong safety, and that may be his most natural position, as he has consistently displayed the ability to get downhill in a hurry, take on blocks and make plays near the line of scrimmage.
Alabama's Iron Bowl defeat to Auburn last season saw Mayden make several plays on which he impacted the opposing run game.
Early in the first quarter, Mayden forced Auburn into a third-and-long situation by working his way off the block of a wide receiver and setting the edge against an option run from quarterback Bo Nix, who had to run out of bounds for a loss. Later, on a first-down hand-off to a wide receiver coming across the formation, Mayden jarred a significantly larger blocker backward, taking away a running lane and leading the ball-carrier to bounce outside for minimal gain.
Mayden is similarly comfortable taking on second-level blocks, slipping one against Auburn to restrict the ball-carrier to what would have been a short gain had a penalty not set the Tigers up with first and goal.
What stands out about Mayden is the read-and-react quickness he frequently displays, and this was a feature of his play against the pass as well as the run.
In the second quarter of Alabama's win over Tennessee, Mayden quickly read the eyes of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, which were only ever focused on future 49er draft pick Jauan Jennings, transitioned quickly out of his backpedal and broke downhill to poke the ball out of Jennings' grasp.
He showcased the same urgency to break towards the ball in Alabama's dominant win at South Carolina. Cheating his way down from a two-high look to cover the inside receiver lined up off the line of scrimmage, Mayden again reacted instantly to the quick throw to arrive at the catch point at exactly the right time to make a play on the ball and force the incompletion.
The best measuring stick for players from powerhouse schools is not how they fare against inferior competition, but how they perform in the biggest games. In Alabama's thrilling defeat to Joe Burrow's LSU, Mayden consistently made plays in the backfield and near the line of scrimmage, while also demonstrating the ability to read the eyes of the number one overall pick.
The defeat to LSU also provided a glaring example of Mayden's biggest weakness: form tackling. He missed a clear sack on Burrow through an inability to wrap up and too often Mayden will go for the knockout hit rather than just making the simple tackle.
That will have to change if he is to stick with the 49ers, who were one of the best tackling teams in the NFL last year.
San Francisco's coaching staff will love Mayden's aggressiveness, however, and between his versatility, ball skills that saw him snag four interceptions in his sole season as a starter for the Crimson Tide last year, and some limited special teams experience, the former four-star recruit has enough strings to his bow to build a convincing case for a spot on the roster.
The Niners have hit on a high percentage of undrafted free agents in the John Lynch-Kyle Shanahan era. In this unique offseason, it will be tougher for this crop to force their way onto one of the league's most stacked rosters. However, safety is one of few areas where the 49ers are arguably short and, given the value they place on versatility, Mayden likely has the best shot of any of San Francisco's signees.
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