Isaiah Oliver

Oliver or Lenoir? 49ers' Wilks sees new possibilities at nickel back

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SANTA CLARA — Without a locked-in starter at nickel back, 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks sees a situational rotation as a possibility.

During free agency the club brought in Isaiah Oliver, who played the position during his time with the Atlanta Falcons. During Saturday night’s preseason contest with the Denver Broncos, cornerback Deommodore Lenoir was moved inside to defend the slot receiver for a handful of plays.

The two defensive backs are built differently. Oliver stands six feet tall and weighs 210 pounds. Lenoir is listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds. Wilks believes they could both be used at the nickel position when facing different opposing receivers.

“I wouldn't put Demo on a tight end,” Wilks said on Monday. “We may want to go nickel with 12 personnel. I'm not going to put Demo on the tight end. Oliver's going to be on that other tight end.

“There's going to be certain matchups in the slot right there based off who that guy may be. I'm not going to put Oliver in that situation. Demo may be that guy.” 

Coach Kyle Shanahan insinuated there was heavy competition for the role following the club’s preseason opener in Las Vegas when nearly every starter sat out of the game. Oliver was on the field for 32 percent of the defensive snaps (19 plays). The veteran cornerback was on the field for another 19 plays in Saturday night’s contest.

“Just because he isn’t a guaranteed starter,” Shanahan said after the preseason opener. “He has been doing that spot a lot, but there’s a lot of competition there. We sat our outside corners, but we didn’t want to sit any nickels and needed some guys to play because there’s a lot of things we’re still deciding.”

Wilks reinforced the competition that Shanahan mentioned, while adding that he is pleased with what he has seen from Oliver since his arrival in Santa Clara. The defensive coach believes they can use the veteran’s skill set to their advantage.

“We brought him in for a reason,” Wilks said. “This league's all about matchups. I’ve never been a part of anything like this to have this kind of depth. I've been on teams where we're waiting to see exactly the last preseason game of who gets cut and everybody's looking at this particular team trying to pull from.

“To have the options that we have, not only at the nickel position, but across the board, linebacker as well as D-Line is a luxury. There's teams that don't have this flexibility. I think it's a luxury.

Wilks also has been pleased with how Lenoir has looked at the slot position, but the Oregon product might be more valuable on the outside, opposite Charvarius Ward. Lenoir started coming into his own in his second NFL season, with a heightened sense of confidence.

To move Lenoir to another position at this point in his career would be a challenge, as the nickel is responsible not only for covering the slot receiver, but also for stopping the run.

How this position battle plays out will be interesting as the club has had very talented players at the position in the past. Filling the shoes of former 49ers defensive backs in K'Waun Williams (now with the Denver Broncos) and Jimmie Ward (now with the Houston Texans) is a monumental task.

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