This is my Sunday column.
Joe Staley seemed like he was thinking about something else.
Reporters were asking him how he felt about earning a fifth consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. This was Wednesday. Staley didn’t seem to feel anything in particular about the honor. He seemed bored. Yes, he felt he’d been playing pretty well. No, he didn’t feel any less disappointed about the 2015 season.
So, I asked him how he felt about the 49ers’ future. Does the franchise need to make major changes?
He perked up. This he’d thought about.
“I feel optimistic,” he said. “I think we have a lot of young guys on this team, a lot of guys that are stepping up. We need more guys to get into those leadership roles. I see the traits and qualities that are needed out of those young guys, but that can’t be something that’s forced upon someone. That’s kind of got to grow natural for it to be effective.”
Then he listed five young guys: “We’ve seen Jimmie Ward the last four or five weeks really really playing amazing … And you see (Jaquiski) Tartt, a young guy. And (Arik) Armstead. And you see Trent Brown really playing really great last week on the O-line. And (Andrew) Tiller.”
Staley says those are the guys to watch, so those are the guys you need to watch Sunday when the Niners face the Lions in Detroit. And, this is what you need to know about each player.
1. Jimmie Ward, nickelback
Staley listed Ward first, gave him his highest approval. Ward deserves the praise. The past three weeks, he has been the NFL’s top-graded cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus — a grading service almost every team uses.
Ward plays slot cornerback in the Niners’ nickel defense. He’s an excellent athlete who’s been playing with a broken foot since he was drafted, but the foot seems healthy now. And all of a sudden, he seems like a future Pro Bowler.
He has given up only 10 receiving yards since Week 13. Quarterbacks aren’t testing him. Sunday, he’ll cover Golden Tate, one of the best slot receivers in the NFL. Tate is Ward’s biggest test of the season.
2. Jaquiski Tartt, strong safety/inside linebacker
Tartt has been the starting strong safety since Antoine Bethea tore his pectoral muscle Week 7.
Tartt seems like a decent safety — certainly better than 24-year-old starter Eric Reid, who takes more hits than he dishes out these days. Notice Staley didn’t mention Reid.
Tartt is a missile, one of the hardest tacklers on the team. But, the rookie seems uncomfortable playing deep zone coverage. Deep zone coverage may not be his strength. He may need to change positions in the future.
Inside linebacker seems like the best spot for him. He’s tough enough to stop the run in “the box,” and athletic enough to cover tight ends man to man. Don’t be surprised if Tartt and NaVorro Bowman are the starting inside linebackers next season.
3. Arik Armstead, defensive end
Armstead may become the best player on the team as early as next season.
He’s already good, but he’s not a starter. He’s a defensive tackle in the 49ers’ nickel and dime defenses. He’s a part-time pass rusher. He doesn’t play much against the run.
This season is his first as a full-time football player — he played football and basketball in college. He’s 6-foot-8 and still filling out his body. He’s not yet strong enough to start.
But, he’s stronger than you’d expect. Watch him rush the quarterback Sunday. Armstead will be in quarterback Matthew Stafford’s face almost every snap.
4. Trent Brown, right tackle
Last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, rookie right tackle Trent Brown played 34 snaps — his first extended playing time of the season. He had to block Carlos Dunlap, one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
Brown shut him out. That’s why Staley said Brown was “really playing really great last week.”
Brown should start at right tackle against Lions. If he plays well, the Niners may not need to spend their first-round pick on an offensive lineman next year.