With a host of players in the 49ers’ defensive secondary set to hit NFL free agency after this season, Niner Noise examines what that group may look like in 2021.
At first glance, the decision by San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch to pass on grabbing help for the secondary in last April’s NFL Draft may have seemed shortsighted, but a further look yields a different perspective on the matter.
The team will have five members of the secondary whose contracts are up following the 2020 season: cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams and safety Jaquiski Tartt becoming unrestricted free agents. Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley will be a restricted free agent, meaning a team wishing to sign him as a free agent would have to pony up a second-round pick to the Niners if they apply the second-round tender.
And while the consensus around the league was that the salary cap would see a healthy increase next year, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding it could change the cap dramatically, and not for the better. Teams with limited salary cap space may not have as much room as originally expected, including the 49ers.
And there’s the rub. With contract extensions for tight end George Kittle and defensive end Nick Bosa on the horizon, the front office may need to utilize a combination of the draft and UDFAs to fill those roster spots. Doing so would infuse youth to the position(s) with players on rookie contracts.
Some of those potential moves could yield a new-look secondary. Here are a few of those possibilities.
Sherman’s age and expiring contract free the Niners up to move on with Moseley starting on one side, leaving the other side open for competition. Current roster possibilities include bringing back Witherspoon (provided he performs well this year), Tim Harris, D.J. Reed and 2020 UDFA DeMarkus Acy.
Or, assuming they prioritize this position in next year’s draft, (and their record puts them towards the end of the first round), the possibilities could include Georgia’s Tyson Campbell or Florida’s Trey Dean III to name a few.
With the team re-signing Jimmie Ward this offseason, he will most likely remain a starter next year at one of the safety spots provided he stays healthy. And while Tartt has stayed healthy and played adequately at the other safety position, he most likely will command more money on the open market than the team will be willing to pay.
It would open up competition for current players Marcel Harris, Tarvarious Moore or perhaps even UDFA Jared Mayden if he proves himself worthy.
Moore may very well have the inside track after switching back to his natural position at safety last season and performing well in a limited role.
Should the Niners look to the 2021 draft instead, early round considerations could include the likes of LSU’s JaCoby Stevens, Oregon’s Jevon Holland, UCF’s Richie Grant or Tariq Thompson of San Diego State.
With defensive coordinator Robert Saleh employing a system that has the safeties interchangeably covering backs and tight ends, as well as playing deep or dropping down in run support, the position’s value cannot be overlooked.
As with any team in the NFL, areas of greater concern could surface during the course of the season that change the priorities for the front office to address.
And while this season may be all about continuity for contending teams, especially given the extraordinary circumstance of the pandemic, the 49ers will undoubtedly have some fresh faces in their defensive secondary when the 2021 season kicks off next September.