A year ago at this time, Adrian Colbert was a seventh-round draft pick facing long odds to make the 49ers roster.
Now Colbert goes into 2018 as perhaps the strongest candidate to start at free safety having been impressive last season when pressed into the lineup because of injuries. The former University of Miami defensive back, who was drafted in part because he could play both cornerback and safety, appeared in 14 games in 2017 and started six games. He played both free and strong safety. He was in on 32 tackles, had five passes defensed and forced two fumbles. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Colbert showed he can be both physical and mobile.
Late last season, general manager John Lynch, a terrific safety during his NFL career, said Colbert showed a level of talent, “characteristic of a starter and a big-time starter.”
Now, as the 49ers have gathered for organized team activities (OTAs) this week, some see Colbert as a seventh-round steal and a key piece of a rebuilt and growing defense. Longtime national NFL analyst Pete Prisco, for one, is a huge fan of Colbert, and sees him as a 49ers starter this season.
“Colbert is going to be a special player now,” Prisco said on the Pick Six Podcast this week. “You talk about a find in the seventh round. He can run, he’s physical. He calls himself the Punisher and there’s a reason for it. Usually when a guy is the Punisher, usually with a guy like that, they punish and they’re good in the run game, but they’re not great in coverage. But that’s not the case at all. He can fly, and he flies to the ball. He might be the next great safety in this league.
“That’s how impressed I was with him down the stretch. It’s funny because I watched him, I kept talking to guys in the league and they kept saying, ‘the Colbert kid, the Colbert kid.’ ”
Colbert’s new teammate, veteran cornerback Richard Sherman, has noticed, too. Now with San Francisco after seven seasons with the Seahawks, Sherman said recently the 49ers have two young defensive backs drafted in 2017 that can be starters for a long time.
“The secondary is young, but they’re incredibly talented and they work incredibly hard,” Sherman told the NFL Network. “Adrian Colbert is a great safety. … (Cornerback) Ahkello Witherspoon has all the talent in the world, can move, can cover anybody.”
Sherman, a former All-Pro and Pro Bowler, says it’s his job to help both grow.
“It’s just understanding that it’s a day-to-day grind to be great,” he said, “and that’s what I’m trying to get through to them, but they work as hard as any group I’ve seen.”