Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are 12 days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR will count down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.
Without further ado, let’s highlight free safety Adrian Colbert, our 12th-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Adrian Colbert
Leave it to nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch to dig up a safety gem in the seventh round of his first draft as a general manager. That would be Adrian Colbert, who transferred from Texas to Miami before his senior season, logged just six total college starts, was not invited to the 2017 NFL Combine, and fell to the No. 229 pick before being selected.
The 49ers initially viewed the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder as a cornerback in Robert Saleh’s 4-3 scheme that emphasizes big corners. But Jimmie Ward suffered a hamstring strain prior to training camp, moving Colbert to free safety. It would not be until Jaquiski Tartt broke his arm in Week 9 that Colbert would slide into the starting role alongside strong safety Eric Reid.
Coincidence or not, San Francisco’s first win — a 31-21 home win over the New York Giants in Week 10 — aligned with Colbert’s first start. He dominated, laying down crushing hits, eliminating chunk runs by closing down the ballcarrier, and defending passes over the top — all hallmarks of a Cover 3 single-high safety.
— 49er_Edits (@49er_edits) November 14, 2017
Colbert’s play left the 49ers with little decision but to continue starting him. After the Week 10 win, Lynch said Colbert “displayed some things in that game that are characteristic of a starter and a big-time starter.”
He followed a tremendous starting debut with one solid performance upon the next. The 49ers allowed more than 23 points just once in the six games Colbert started at free safety — all of which were wins. Much of that is attributed to Jimmy Garoppolo’s arrival, which morphed the offense into one of the league’s best and lessened the onus on the defense. But San Francisco’s young defense began to figure it out, with Colbert emerging as one of its breakthrough stars.
His most important play of the year came in Week 14. The 49ers led the Houston Texans by a touchdown with fewer than six minutes remaining. Colbert popped the ball loose from All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the 49ers recovered in their own territory, and eventually sealed the win with a field goal.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 10, 2017
Colbert was arguably the most pleasant surprise in a historically unique season in which the 49ers become the first team to start 0-9 and finish 6-10. He ended the campaign with 37 tackles, a team-leading two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and five passes defended, which tied for second-most on the 49ers.
He showed impressive range, close-out speed (he ran consecutive 4.4 40-yard dashes at his pro day), anticipation, instincts, and ball skills. The most eye-popping trait was his big hitting, spawning a new nickname: The Punisher.
Colbert enters Year No. 2 as the middle-third safety starter, arguably the secondary’s most important position. Robert Saleh’s Cover-3 defense requires its two cornerbacks and nickelback to exclusively cover their thirds of the field, leaving Colbert as the last line of defense. It’s on him to play center field, anticipate, make judgment calls on whether to stay home or pursue, and ensure nothing gets over the top.
Most of San Francisco’s defensive starters enter their first seasons in those full-time roles. That includes Colbert, the seventh-round pick resembling San Francisco’s free safety of the future.
COACH SPOTLIGHT: Daniel Bullocks, assistant defensive backs
Bullocks enters his second season as San Francisco’s assistant defensive backs coach. He played four seasons as a safety with the Detroit Lions from 2006 to 2010, then coached defensive backs at Northern Iowa and Eastern Michigan, and returned to the NFL in 2016.
As Jacksonville’s assistant defensive backs coach, he helped mold its secondary into one of the NFL’s top units. In his lone season with the Jaguars, they allowed the fifth-fewest passing yards (215.3) and sixth-fewest total yards (321.7) per game. Several of Jacksonville’s young, budding stars made the leap from good to great. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye now form arguably the NFL’s top cornerback duo.
Alongside lead defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, Bullocks faces a similar task in San Francisco. None of its projected starters started more than eight games with the 49ers in 2017. Newly signed Richard Sherman is working his way back from an Achilles rupture. The potential is there, but the youth among the 49ers secondary creates some uncertainty.
Last year, the 49ers tied for 22nd in the NFL with 256 passing yards allowed. They ranked 24th with 10 interceptions and 28th with 56 passes defended.
Only time will tell whether the new-look defensive backfield will improve in a highly anticipated 2018 season.
This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the current rankings below.