San Francisco Chronicle

Oliver confident he’s good fit for defense

- By Eric Branch

After new San Francisco 49ers cornerback Isaiah Oliver spent most of 2022 rehabbing from a serious knee injury, it immediatel­y became clear his new year could be healthier and happier.

On Jan. 1, he rang in 2023 by playing a starring role in the Falcons’ 20-19 win over the Cardinals. Oliver had nine tackles, matching a career high, and added a sack and two pass breakups while playing 44 snaps at nickel cornerback and 12 at free safety.

“He played one of the best defensive-back games I’ve been around,” said Atlanta defensive coordinato­r Dean Pees, 73, an 18-season NFL veteran.

The good game, which was the penultimat­e of the regular season, came at a good time. It signaled to NFL teams that Oliver, 26, appeared to be fully recovered from a torn ACL that sidelined him for 13 months and the season’s first five games in a contract year.

The 49ers were among those to take notice. Last week, they signed Oliver to a two-year, $6.65 million contract.

“I went through the offseason rehabbing,” said Oliver, who tore his ACL on Oct. 3, 2021. “Go through training camp, still rehabbing. Started the season, still rehabbing. And then finally being able to get back on the field … I felt like every week I got a little better and a little more confident in it. It probably wasn’t until December where I said, ‘OK, now I feel real, real good.’ ”

Oliver will be asked to take over a position, nickel cornerback, on the NFL’s top-ranked defense that has been manned by K’Waun Williams (2017-21) and Jimmie Ward (2022), who have ensured the 49ers have been well covered in a role that requires more than coverage skills.

There is reason to believe Oliver can continue the tradition. The 2018 second-round pick was moved inside by the Fal

cons after two inconsiste­nt seasons at outside cornerback, where his soso speed was a liability. Oliver, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds at his combine, found a home at nickel, which emphasizes short-area quickness to keep pace with shifty slot receivers. It also requires an element of ruggedness because nickels play closer to the trenches and have more run-defense responsibi­lities.

Oliver allowed a careerbest 76.2 passer rating on the 42 passes on which he was targeted last year. He allowed a 107.8 rating in his first two NFL seasons.

“I definitely felt much more comfortabl­e in there,” Oliver said. “I felt like I was able to play to my strengths a little more. Kind of being around the ball and being in the run fit; I felt real comfortabl­e doing it.”

Oliver, 6 foot and 210 pounds, is bigger than Williams (5-9, 185), who signed with the Broncos last year. But he pointed to Williams as an example when explaining why being a well-rounded nickel corner has more to do with doggedness than dimensions.

“He was one of the surest tacklers in the league and was never afraid to go in there and hit something,” Oliver said. “So I’m not sure it makes that big of a difference (if you are) bigger or 20 pounds lighter. It’s really about knowing where you fit and having that (desire) to go in and do it.”

Oliver had become accustomed to doing a little bit of everything. At the University of Colorado, his all-around ability allowed him to post the third-highest decathlon score in school history and finish fourth at the Pac-12 Championsh­ips. And he has played every secondary position except for strong safety in the NFL.

But he has found his niche at nickel, a particular­ly difficult position in the NFC West. Oliver’s coverage assignment­s will include Rams’ All-Pro wide receiver Cooper Kupp and Seahawks’ Pro Bowl wideout Tyler Lockett, who routinely line up in the slot.

Oliver is up for the challenge.

“It’s something I feel like I’ve excelled at in the last couple years, for sure,” Oliver said. “And I’m still getting better at it. That’s what I look forward to bringing to the team.”

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