The 49ers in the 2019 offseason elected not to address their secondary through either free agency, nor high draft capital. A decision that was questioned by most beat writers and fans. According to PFF, the 49ers' pass coverage ranked near last in the league. How could it possibly improve with the same cast of defensive backs?
The answer is simple: Development.
Developing your own players isn’t the sexy way to go about building a roster, but it’s necessary. Most notably, Ahkello Witherspoon was under a lot of scrutiny after up and down rookie and sophomore seasons that ended with him on IR. With a new mindset and focus, Witherspoon has been one of many bright spots in the 49ers' secondary, a major contributor in helping this team get off to a 3-0 start heading into the bye week.
More than halfway through the third game against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, Witherspoon left the game with what appeared to be a hurt foot blocking on a punt return - an injury that would leave Witherspoon sidelined for at least a month, per head coach Kyle Shanahan.
So, how do you replace the rising star cornerback? With a veteran star cornerback, right? Jason Verrett, who prior to this game had only played in five games in the last three seasons, was inserted into the game and immediately tested. Back to back big plays ensued: a long pass interference call and a 39-yard touchdown to rookie Dionte Johnson.
The 49ers immediately replaced Verrett with second-year cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.
E-Man, as they call him, is a twitchy, fluid, cornerback out of the University of Tennessee. Most people outside of the 49ers organization haven’t heard of him because he spent most of the 2018 season on the 49ers' practice squad. Moseley was promoted to the active roster Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders, but quickly exited the game with an apparent shoulder injury. This injury would land Moseley on the injured reserve list and sideline him until the 2019 season.
Most teams believe in their ability to draft and develop players. The same could be said for undrafted players. And that was the plan for Moseley.
A former 49er player who knows all about developing is 2007 fifth-round draft pick out of Texas, Tarell Brown. Brown was a key contributor in the Harbaugh Era playoff runs, but he didn’t start there. Brown began his career as a reserve player starting only five out of his first 55 contest he appeared in. When former head coach Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011, Brown won a cornerback battle that inserted him into the starting line up. A line up that played in three straight NFC Championship games including the lone Super Bowl appearance in 2012.
When I asked Brown about waiting for his time to play, he said, “I worked my ass off and found other ways to showcase my skills when given opportunities.”
As someone who was an undrafted free agent myself, I know all about the politics side of the NFL. It’s a business. I watched Dee Milliner get drafted ninth overall by the New York Jets, miss the entire offseason rehabbing, then held out of training camp for contract purposes - and when he finally ended his holdout, he was immediately inserted in the starting lineup.
I asked Brown how he stayed motivated while dealing with the politics of the NFL. “To be honest, I’m a self-motivated person by nature. So it wasn’t hard. When [Jim] Harbaugh took over, I felt I was finally given a fair opportunity to compete for a starting job.”
E-Man, as 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan calls him, is in a similar situation. Sitting behind 2017 third-round pick in Ahkello Witherspoon and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, Moseley was typically the third cornerback on the depth chart most of training camp.
When Witherspoon went down with an injury, former Pro Bowl cornerback Jason Verrett who missed most of training camp with a sprained ankle immediately leap frogged E-Man. I asked Moseley how he stayed focused and motivated throughout the process. “I feel like the chips have been stacked against me throughout this entire process,” Moseley told Fourth and Nine. “Throughout everything I’ve strived to remain focused and really grow as an NFL player and a man of God.”
Both Brown and Moseley got their opportunities on ascending 49er teams. In 2011, the 49ers won 9 out of their first 10 games with Brown starting at cornerback. That team went on to lose in the Conference Championship to the New York Giants. Moseley looks to get his first career start on a 3-0 49ers team.
He had this to say about the upcoming challenge. “I approach every week the same, even last season, giving 100%.” He went on to say, “When your number is called, that is an opportunity to prove yourself. My focus and preparation remains at 100. But this is a very big week. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
A big opportunity his teammates think he is up for.
While talking to Jake Hutchinson of KNBR, Richard Sherman said of Moseley: “Honestly, I wish he would have had a chance to play last year, because then people wouldn’t be as panicked as they are right now,”
The stage is set, and the lights will be bright for Moseley as the 49ers take on the Cleveland Browns on Monday night football, but Tarell Brown had a short and sweet message for Emmanuel Moseley, “Play with confidence and have fun.”
When you go undrafted you don’t get many opportunities to make your mark in this league. I believe Emmanuel Moseley is up for the challenge.
Media courtesy Getty Images & USA Today Sports Images
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