Home News 49ers safety Ji’Ayir Brown assumes control of secondary

49ers safety Ji’Ayir Brown assumes control of secondary

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SANTA CLARA — If Ji’Ayir Brown happens to intercept Aaron Rodgers when the 49ers open the regular season against the New York Jets, go ahead and assume the feet of secondary coach Daniel Bullocks will remain firmly on the ground.

The 49ers will count on Brown, a second-year player out of Penn State, to be a defensive leader as a starting free safety. When Brown intercepted Patrick Mahomes on the first possession of the second half in Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, Bullocks took a celebratory leap.

The 49ers were leading 10-3 and the takeaway gave the ball to Brock Purdy and Co. at the Chiefs’ 44-yard line.

When Bullocks landed, he thought he’d sprained an ankle. Things deteriorated from there for the 49ers, who failed to turn the interception into points and wound up losing 25-22 in overtime.

“Once I sat down and saw the confetti coming down, I stood up and knew immediately, ‘Uh, oh, this is serious,” Bullocks said Wednesday as select 49ers position coaches were available to the media.

Serious enough for Bullocks to have surgery the following Thursday along with Dre Greenlaw, the 49ers’ starting linebacker who tore his Achilles earlier in the game while running onto the field from the sideline.

“I tell my wife every day I still can’t believe it happened,” Bullocks said. “At 41 years old, only had a couple knee surgeries as a player. Then I tear my Achilles on the biggest stage. Losing the game was the most devastating part.”

San Francisco 49ers safety Ji'Ayir Brown (27) makes an interception against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half of the Super Bowl 58 NFL football game Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
San Francisco 49ers safety Ji’Ayir Brown (27) makes an interception against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half of the Super Bowl 58 NFL football game Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) 

When the 49ers opted not to re-sign veteran free safety Tashaun Gipson Jr. in free agency, it represented a changing of the guard on the 49ers’ last line of defense. Gipson, 33, intercepted one pass last season after having five in 2022.

Brown, a third-round draft pick and the first of the 49ers in 2023, played sparingly on defense until strong safety Talanoa Hufanga sustained a torn ACL against Tampa Bay in Week 11. A first-team All-Pro in 2022, Hufanga struggled early on in 2023 and was just starting to regain his form before he was injured.

Against the Buccaneers, Brown had two key pass breakups and an end zone interception in a 27-14 win. In the days leading up to that game, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy said Brown had simulated Tampa Bay All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield.

“He’s got great instincts and is all over the place, just like Winfield,” Purdy said.

Brown started five times, then missed the last two regular-season games and the first playoff game with a knee injury before returning to play well against both Detroit in the NFC Championship Game and then the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. He was second on the team to Fred Warner with 10 tackles to go along with his interception of Mahomes.

It wasn’t enough to take away the hurt of an overtime loss.

“I’m still going through the emotions,” Brown said. “A game like that, you don’t ever forget what it feels like. I still think about the Super Bowl.”

The Brown who reported for the 49ers’ offseason program is light years ahead of the one who arrived with a lot to learn.

“I’m way, way better,” Brown said. “I came in just adapting to the speed of the game, my job, my responsibility in coverages. I’m way sharper. I know more jobs in the defense now. It was hard when I came in.”

Safety will be one of the most closely scrutinized positions on the 49ers defense. Hufanga is still rehabbing his torn ACL. The hope is he’ll be good to go in training camp, but the truth is Hufanga’s breakout season in 2022 wasn’t being replicated even before he got hurt.

Rookie Malik Mustapha, a third-round pick from Wake Forest, will get a long look, more likely as a box safety than as a center fielder. That means Brown, at 5-foot-11, 202 pounds, will assume Gipson’s role as a last line of defense.

The roles will vary, however. New defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen has a background with the Seattle Seahawks under former coach Pete Carroll and a belief that his safeties will have roles that vary from play to play or series to series.

“I just think with safeties today and defensive backs today, you need to be versatile,” Sorensen said. “Even linebackers, I mean, look at what we’ve done with certain guys that have kind of been in different positions and it’s such a fast game and offenses look to expose you in certain ways.”

It remains to be seen how Brown will fare, but it helps that he talks and conducts himself like a veteran. He has already told Mustapha what he’s in for in the NFL.

“I was telling him, just take your time, don’t try and rush it,” Brown said. “It’s a process. You’re not going to step on the field and know it all. I didn’t. I don’t think anyone has ever been on the field as a rookie and knew it all. Take your time, enjoy the little moments and eventually it will come.”

The 49ers are putting a lot on Brown’s plate, and Bullocks is confident he’s got the appetite to excel. He cited the second-year leap Hufanga made in performance and thinks something similar will happen with Brown.



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