JiAyir Brown

Ward's sky-high expectations for 49ers rookie Brown: ‘He's a dog'

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SANTA CLARA -- Charvarius Ward knows a good defensive back when he sees one, and the 49ers cornerback believes San Francisco's newest addition checks all the boxes.

The safety room gained one new member during the 2023 NFL Draft when the 49ers traded up to No. 87 overall to take Ji'Ayir Brown -- a 23-year-old Penn State product described by general manager John Lynch as a "baller."

After making a strong impression during OTAs, Brown has caught Ward's attention in just over one week of training camp.

"I think he’s a grown man," Ward said after practice Thursday. "You look at him, he looks like he’s been in the league already for a couple years. So I definitely think in the preseason when the pads come on, he’s going to be smacking people around. His game’s really going to show real good.

"In practice he might not be making a lot of plays right now, but I know on game day, Sundays, whoever we play, he’s going to be a dog. He’s a dog, for sure."

The 49ers don't have a starting safety position open at the moment, with Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson looking to run it back in the secondary this season. There's no telling if San Francisco's new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks could deploy some three-safety looks with Brown in the mix -- should the rookie's preseason play lives up to Ward's expectations -- but for now, the team appears focused on letting the third-round pick develop under its two starters.

For instance, Brown last week took a snap with the first-team defense and then immediately came off the field. Wilks explained that the move was about the long-term rather than trying to give the young safety any specific looks.

"We just got him in the rotation and, really, long-term also trying to take some pressure off Gipson, who’s a seasoned veteran," Wilks said last Thursday. "And we’re looking at the long haul and making sure that [Gipson's] there at the end of the season, but also opportunities for those young guys to progress, because, again, at some point in time, we’re going to need them."

Brown should play a role in the 49ers' secondary for the foreseeable future, though whether or not he makes a push for a starting safety role by the end of the season remains to be seen. It isn't out of the question, however, despite Gipson's highly productive 2022 campaign. Brandon Aiyuk in June laid out just how impressive Brown was during OTAs, recording four interceptions and dropping a fifth during the 10-day period,

"He's done a great job," the wide receiver said. "He's got like three or four picks already through these first couple of days. And he just comes in, wants to work when the work comes in, doesn't say too much, just work. So I like him. I like him a lot. ... I know a lot of people who leave picks out there, and he actually left one out there, so he might have even had five. But he's getting to the ball as a safety, so you love to see it."

Ball production is a key goal of Wilks' this season, with the new DC stating in June he'd like to see the secondary come up with more takeaways. That appears to be a strength of Brown's, and the 49ers certainly would like to see him on the field sooner rather than later as his development comes along. As for Ward, he's enjoying the rookie's attitude one practice at a time -- and the Las Vegas Raiders should be on red alert come Aug. 13 when San Francisco visits for joint practices and its first preseason game.

"Just his mentality, like I said, his body type, his mentality," Ward said, pointing out the indicators that Brown will command the preseason field. "You look at him, he kind of looks mad. He’s a happy person, but on the field he’s aggressive, he plays hard, he plays fast. That’s what I get from him -- he plays hard, he plays fast.

"He’s definitely not scared of nothing."

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