49ers depth chart: Is strong safety going to be a problem?

Jimmie Ward #1 and Talanoa Hufanga #29 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Jimmie Ward #1 and Talanoa Hufanga #29 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

The 49ers’ decision to let Jaquiski Tartt walk in NFL free agency might put pressure on a safety crop that isn’t ready to provide needed thump.

If there’s one spot on the San Francisco 49ers defense that creates more question marks and has fewer answers than any other, it’s at safety.

Particularly at strong safety where the Niners opted not to re-sign veteran starter Jaquiski Tartt after he’s assume this role ever since the team drafted him way back in 2015.

Tartt remains a free agent, so we can’t cross off the possibility San Francisco entertains a reunion here. Yet head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch both admitted they hadn’t been in contact with Tartt since the beginning of the league new year.

Prior to the NFL Draft, this would have signaled the likelihood the 49ers would find Tartt’s replacement with a rookie, except the Niners did no such thing, only adding undrafted free-agent defensive back Leon O’Neal Jr. out of Texas A&M.

A draftable player, O’Neal could be a UDFA steal. But to assume he’s equal to the task of replacing Tartt would be a bit premature.

Nearly every scouting report suggests O’Neal is little more than a run-stopping, in-the-box safety anyway. Not someone who has the coverage potential of a player like Tartt.

O’Neal even has a long way to go to make the 53-man roster anyway.

What other options do the 49ers have at strong safety?

Prior to O’Neal’s addition, San Francisco inked former Indianapolis Colts special teams contributor George Odum, a player who despite a first-team All-Pro nod for his work on the crucial third phase of the game has nevertheless started just 10 games over his four-year career.

There are the returnees, though, including defensive backs Talanoa Hufanga and Tarvarius Moore.

Moore, who is returning from a torn Achilles suffered last offseason, didn’t play at all in 2021 and was a marginal starter at best from 2018 through 2020. Yet he might be the favorite to earn the job if the 49ers don’t give it to Odum and considering Hufanga’s rookie-year coverage skills weren’t particularly great.

Pro Football Focus dished out a merely so-so 60.2 pass-coverage grade for his efforts last season.

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Granted, free safety Jimmie Ward might help make up for the bulk of the Niners’ shortcomings closer to the box, but he’s not capable of covering the field and ensuring whatever gap between Tartt’s level of play and the proverbial “next man up” isn’t too great.

Simply put, San Francisco is taking a gamble here and better hope one of those four options — Hufanga, Moore, Odum or O’Neal — wind up surprising a lot this season.

Hopefully beyond.

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