49ers ‘keep or dump’ decisions on defensive starters for 2022

Josh Norman #26, Fred Warner #54 and Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Josh Norman #26, Fred Warner #54 and Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /
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Josh Norman, San Francisco 49ers, Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Josh Norman (26) against Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

49ers Defensive Backfield

There may be a handful of challenging decisions for San Francisco along the defensive line and at linebacker, but the secondary is chock full of provocative choices to be made on the table.

The 49ers have three rookies — Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir and Talanoa Hufanga — they’d like to assume bigger roles in 2022, but only Hufanga has seen any substantial time as a starter or regularly contributing player.

This could prompt some emergency decisions again by the Niners, who’ve dealt with both injuries and underperformance from this group of defensive backs.

Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley: Keep

There’s a good chance cornerback Emmanuel Moseley emerges in 2022 as San Francisco’s “veteran” at the position.

Signed through 2022 anyway, and considering the scrambling the 49ers have had to make at the position, Moseley is a safe bet to return next season anyway, even if he’s regularly on the fringes of being a starting-caliber option and a high-quality backup.

He does have 10 pass breakups on the year, though, leading the Niners defense by far.

Cornerback Josh Norman: Dump

Look, it makes sense why San Francisco brought aboard 33-year-old veteran cornerback Josh Norman, and the move was made more crucial when the team lost corner Jason Verrett to a season-ending ACL way back in Week 1.

Norman does lead the league with six forced fumbles, which is great. But he’s also the team leader in accepted penalties against with six, too, and it’s another case of “high risk, high reward” with Norman on the field.

The 49ers need to get younger and more athletic here.

Cornerback K’Waun Williams: Keep

Again, not technically a starter, but nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams’ importance on the field is certainly worth evaluating enough to mention here.

Turning 31 years old this offseason, it makes sense why the Niners would want to get younger, especially if Williams looks to capitalize on what’ll likely be his last big-time free-agent deal in 2022. And San Francisco has to take into account the number of injuries Williams has dealt with in recent years, including missing three games already this season.

Lenoir might be the long-term replacement, but that’ll be a tall order to fully replace Williams in 2022. The 49ers should figure out a way to keep Williams around at least one more season.

Free Safety Jimmie Ward: Keep

Free safety Jimmie Ward, signed through 2022, is much like Arik Armstead in the way his stats don’t tell the entire story.

Although his two interceptions against the Rams back in Week 10 sure helped matters a lot.

The Niners pass defense, perhaps wrongfully viewed as the team’s biggest weakness, ranks sixth in the league in fewest yards allowed (2,280) and has surrendered just 6.1 yards per attempt (10th).

Ward is a big reason why.

Strong Safety Jaquiski Tartt: Dump

Like Ward, San Francisco’s defense is notably better with strong safety Jaquiski Tartt on the field.

The problem with Tartt, though, is it’s been challenging for him to stay on the field with any sort of regularity.

A turf-toe injury hindered the early part of his 2021 campaign, and he also missed three games with a bone bruise to his knee.

Hufanga was the primary beneficiary of Tartt’s absence, of course, and there have been moments where the rookie showcased why he’s potentially a long-term replacement, even though Hufanga has displayed the concerns of why he was a day-three NFL Draft pick, too.

It might be an initial downgrade for the 49ers, making the switch from Tartt to Hufanga, but getting younger and healthier should be the approach here.

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