All the contract talk is centered on other players, but the 49ers brass should be considering its long term defensive backfield plans, too.
When you consider the San Francisco 49ers offseason, the one topic that comes up over and over again is the obvious one: when will the front office figure out a contract extension for All-Pro tight end George Kittle?
It’s a fair question when you consider Kittle is probably the team’s best player (at the very least on offense) and one who impacts all facets of the game from that side of the ball, both as a pass-catcher and a blocker.
And while Kittle is vital to the 49ers moving forward, they can’t overlook other key positions in spite of a salary cap situation that isn’t the best. This is especially true when you look at just how many players the 49ers have who will be free agents after this season if no extensions are worked out.
This list includes key cogs such as left tackle Trent Williams, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, safety Jaquiski Tartt, and cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon and Richard Sherman, among a cadre of others. And while cornerback should stand out here, it is two other names at the position who feel the most important to invest in sooner rather than later.
You could make the argument Sherman should be on this list, and while it’s hard to argue how valuable he has been for the 49ers since his arrival in San Francisco, it should be noted that NFL teams should be looking forward when making contract decisions, not paying for what a player has already done.
In Sherman’s case, he’ll turn 33 years old before the start of the 2021 season, so it’s fair to question how much longer he can play. He’s never been a speed guy, so there’s less to worry about him there, but it is reasonable to think that even if he’s extended, he’s not a long-term player for a 49ers team looking to be contenders for years to come.
It’s for this reason, Williams and Moseley, and to a lesser extent, Witherspoon should be tipped to sign extensions before they hit the free agency market.
Williams will turn 29 years old this month, which means he won’t even be Sherman’s age by the time he’d finish up his next contract, provided it looks something like the three-year extension he signed at the end of 2017, which paid him $8.85 million over the life of the contract.
There’s little doubt he’s outplayed his money, as he’s essentially a starter on the defense as its slot cornerback, and he’s one of the best in the NFL at his position. So much so that he and Sherman graded out as the NFL’s top cover corner duo by Pro Football Focus last season:
Williams’ overall PFF grade of 77.2 was one of the best at his position and he allowed just a 69.3 passer rating when targeted in 2019, good for second among slot corners who played at least 50 percent of coverage snaps.
But more importantly, he’s a solid defender in both pass and run situations, someone who is rarely a liability on the field.
It’s possible the 49ers think they might be able to find what Williams has offered them elsewhere, maybe even currently on the roster (although D.J. Reed’s injury puts that into major question).
But if the team can lock Williams in for the next few years at a reasonable price (he averaged just under $3 million per year on his previous contract), they should look to keep him around.
Beyond that is the question of who the 49ers can count on to start on the outside.
Let’s assume that Sherman comes back for two more seasons, meaning he’d retire a 49er at the age of 35. And let’s also assume that he is able to be counted on as a starter for both of those seasons. The question next question would be one that has been reverberating in Santa Clara since Sherman’s arrival: who starts opposite him?
One option is Witherspoon, whom the 49ers drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but has failed to live up to his draft position. He’s played in just 12, 14, and 10 regular-season games during his career and has rarely seemed a steady hand opposite Sherman.
In fact, he could be a cap casualty this offseason — although it’s unlikely — because his dead money is just $243,393 if cut. If Witherspoon is still a 49er past 2020, it’ll be on a team-friendly, backup-level salary contract.
This leaves Moseley, who took over for Witherspoon when the former Colorado defensive back was injured during the middle of the season, eventually supplanting him as the starter during the NFC divisional matchup against the Minnesota Vikings and taking over for the rest of the playoffs.
Mosely finished in the top-30 for passer rating allowed among cornerbacks who played 50 percent or more of a team’s coverage snaps, allowing an 86.6 rating when targeted. And while his PFF grade fluctuated, he finished the year with a 70.4 overall grade.
But again, it’s the eye test that suggests that Moseley is the better option to start at the outside corner position, as he often looks more confident and skilled in coverage, something you can’t always say for Witherspoon.
So while he might not be a star in the league, with the 49ers vaunted pass rush, Moseley has done enough to show he’s a viable starter for a team like the Niners.
The former undrafted free agent will look to cash in on his first long term NFL contract, and as long as the numbers are reasonable — maybe something akin to Over the Cap’s valuation of the player — Moseley is a player the 49ers should look to lock up for the foreseeable future.
If the goal of the 2020 49ers is to continue their run as top contenders in the NFL, they need to start making moves that help them not only in the short term but also have long-term thinking in them as well.
Extending Kittle is a major move for both ways of team building, but locking up good players like Williams and Moseley to hold down the secondary is key, too.
So general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan should look to reward both guys by keeping them around for a few more years.