Image Credit: Associated Press
Every team has holes to fill, whether that team is lifting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year or on unofficially “on the clock” when the timer hits 0:00. While the rebuild hasn’t gone as fast as some fans would want, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have done an admirable job of infusing the roster with much needed talent, but that’s not to say that heading into this offseason there weren’t holes to fill in the roster.
You didn’t have to watch many games this season to identify where the roster was deficient; the back half of the defense had major issues covering people, but when they did, the defensive line had just as much trouble getting to the quarterback. The 49ers set a record for fewest interceptions in a season with two, and also ranked 22nd in the NFL with 37 sacks.
Luckily for Lynch and Shanahan, the free agency and draft classes match up with the team’s needs. Heading into the regime’s third offseason, pressure is mounting for the front office and coaching staff to build a perennial playoff contender and hopeful championship team.
The Niners started off aggressive, sending a 2020 second round pick for pass rusher Dee Ford, who was Pro Football Focus’ number-one rated pass rusher last year with a 91.1 score. The clear hope is that Ford, paired with DeForest Buckner, can turn into the second coming of Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
On the back end of the defense the only addition to the roster was former Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett. Verrett is the definition of a “low risk/high reward” signing. Out of 65 career games, Verrett has played in only 25, missing time with a myriad of injuries ranging from a torn rotator cuff (2014), a partially torn ACL (2016), aggravated the previous knee injury (2017), and a ruptured Achilles (2018). If he can stay healthy, and that’s a big “if,” he should challenge Ahkello Witherspoon for the cornerback position opposite Richard Sherman.
But where the front office seems to have whiffed at this point in the offseason is possibly the most important position on the defense: single high safety. The 49ers approached the offseason with close to $70 million in cap space, more than enough to make a splash at their most dire position of need. The safety class was flush with talent; the prototype safety for their defense was available in Earl Thomas, as were younger players in Adrian Amos and LaMarcus Joyner. But instead the decision was made to bring back Jimmie Ward and Antone Exum. Ward is one of the last holdovers from the Baalke era and possibly his worst first round pick outside of A.J. Jenkins. Ward has been moved from slot corner, to boundary corner, to free safety and hasn’t excelled at any of them, but that’s not entirely his fault given the constant change every offseason. He’s finished four of his five professional seasons on the injured reserve list with an array of injuries and can’t be counted on to be available for 16 games heading into 2019. The defense was plagued by horrendous safety play last season and the team’s young cornerbacks Witherspoon, Tarvarius Moore and D.J. Reed can’t be expected to develop without adequate help over the top.
According to overthecap.com the 49ers still have $38 million in salary cap space, which would be enough to entice a free-agent player like Tre Boston to don the Red and Gold and add some much needed competition at the safety spot. They may also be target a safety with the 36th pick in the upcoming draft. While coaching at the Senior Bowl, Shanahan and company were able to take a close look at Virginia safety Juan Thornhill. Could he be the pick if he’s there in the second round?
Every season the NFL is becoming more and more of a pass-first league; last year 30 teams threw the ball on first down over 50% of the time. Even with the additions to the pass rush, this defense won’t really take off until a game changer is added at the safety position. Hopefully the front office has a plan on how to add one heading into the draft, because they didn’t in free agency.
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