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One player at every defensive position the 49ers should tamper with

Now that it’s tampering time, here is who the 49ers should try to sign

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It’s that time of year. The time of year that brings hope to every fanbase in the NFL. By this time Friday somebody in Phoenix will wake up and think that the Cardinals are going to win the division because Arizona overpaid for some free agent wide receiver. That’s the beauty of the beast. Let’s not act like we won’t be drinking the Kool-Aid when if Richard Sherman’s former teammate joins him in the secondary.

Free agency is tough. Ideally, you sign a couple veterans that can come in and help right away. You’re going to over spend in free agency. You don’t want to significantly overspend. You also have to keep in mind what the strengths and weaknesses of the upcoming draft are. How do you avoid paying for past production? What positions of need can you get later on in the draft that aren’t going to cost premium picks or money? That’s the challenge, though. With that in mind, here’s a player at every position on defense that could come in right away and contribute. Let’s start at the safety spots.

Two new starters?

Best Fit

Earl Thomas

Thomas will be the obvious swing for the fences pick. He will also eat into that $66 some odd million or so cap space the team has. Thomas is one of the rare players that is hitting free agency while they are still able to perform at their peak. Rob just wrote about how Thomas is a great fit. The only thing I’ll add to that is Thomas knows Saleh’s defense. We saw the value of Richard Sherman knowing the defense last year. The team would be wise to bring in another veteran like that. Thomas just so happens to be a veteran that is one of the best players at his position. Thomas will be 30 by the time the season starts. He will also be worth every penny.

What the 49ers do with Jimmie Ward will be interesting. Kyle Shanahan said he “really hopes to have him back”, while acknowledging Ward struggles to stay healthy. Are Adrian Colbert and the versatile Antone Exum stopping you from upgrading both positions? They shouldn’t. Let’s say San Francisco swings and misses on Thomas. Or they have their free safety crush in the draft. Here’s the next best option at safety.

Adrian Amos

If Thomas is a grand slam, Amos is a leadoff home run. A couple years ago I graded all the safeties in the NFL for Bleacher Report. It was like a PFF extension, basically. Well I was crazy enough to rank Amos #1. Here’s what I said:

The Bears have one of the NFL’s better up-and-coming safety duos, and Adrian Amos has a lot to do with that. “Smash” rightfully earned his nickname. Amos had a phenomenal 2017. He was outstanding against the run and a sure tackler. In coverage, he showed the kind of awareness that can make him a league-wide star. The only complaint one might have was his lack of plays on the ball. That should come in time.

He was still very good in 2018. He just lost the spotlight because his teammate Eddie Jackson was an All-Pro. Amos hung with George Kittle 1-on-1 this past year. What else do you need as a selling point?

Finding Fred a friend

Dee Ford doesn’t count — no matter what the Chiefs franchise him under. This is more who plays next to Fred Warner. I don’t believe that player is on the roster. Whether it’s free agency or the draft, this is one of the more obvious needs on the roster.

Teams played base defense last year just a shade under 29% of the time. It may be unpopular, but that’s why I don’t believe C.J. Mosley is a great fit. Add in the fact that he’ll likely command over $10 million a year and it’s a hard pass. Here’s a stat on Mosley: He was targeted 60 times in 2018. He gave up 44 catches. Let somebody else pay for a guy that gives up 73% of his catches.

Best Fit

K.J. Wright

No more Seahawks after this, I swear. This is quietly as perfect as a fit as that other safety everyone wants to sign from Seattle. K.J. Wright gives the 49er defense a shot of athleticism and experience. Wright can slide in to that spot right next to Warner and be a massive upgrade over Malcolm Smith.

While Wright only played five regular season games, he missed two tackles. That’s a huge part of what made Seattle good all of those years. The ability to tackle. PFF had San Francisco as the second worst graded tackling team. Wright is an upgrade there and in coverage, where he allowed a reception once every 13 coverage snaps. Good for ninth in the NFL.

Wright will likely cost half as much, at most, as Mosley or another high priced free agent linebacker would. He knows Saleh’s system. In the event Wright goes down with injury, Elijah Lee slides back into that role.

Doubling down on the edge

You don’t need me to tell you that San Francisco needs to improve their pass-rush. It’s Deforest Buckner and everyone else. If I’m Saleh I double down at edge this offseason and let Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead become chest players up and down the line of scrimmage. Deploy them from everywhere, but try and use Thomas especially inside with his athleticism. That is why we won’t talk about the interior part of the defensive front. So here are two edges in free agency that make the most sense.

Best Fit

Justin Houston

Houston remains a pain to deal with. Tackles just don’t block him. He’s still better than Dee Ford. He’s only two years older. He will also much cheaper than Ford. Not just money wise, but draft capital as well. That matters. Again, we just spoke about Houston on Sunday. So you know that he is still one of the better pass-rushers in the NFL. Not to mention his leadership and ability to mentor the young players already on the roster, not to mention another possible edge in the draft.

Shaquil Barrett is a popular choice, but has been relegated to a third pass-rusher all of his career. After five years, that scares me a little. Cassius Marsh rushed the passer four more snaps than Barrett did in 2018. He had 15 more pressures. Eh.

Which brings me to...

Preston Smith

Again, production. Smith has never missed a game in four years. That matters. If you’re worried about Smith coming from a 3-4 defense, check this out:

You are going to have to pay for Smith. Likely $11-12 million. Smith is also 26. He’s in his prime. Last year, Smith had 32.5 pressures. That’s one short of Frank Clark, T.J. Watt, and Myles Garrett. Add him to a team that has Buckner and whatever edge they throw opposite of him, whether Bosa or another free agent, and that would be big time. Shoring up the pass-rush before you get to the draft would be huge. It would also give you the flexibility to make a splash trade.

Rollin’ with Roby

I am not giving up on Ahkello Witherspoon just yet. I’d give a player with his frame and with what he showed his rookie year another shot. He’ll have to earn it, though. If I’m John Lynch I’m still looking to upgrade the corner position. Sherman became Sherman because of his ability to be consistently elite. Roby has teased us. In 2017 he was one of the best corners in the NFL. Roby had a 62% success rate while averaging a whopping five yards per pass. For reference, Sherman was at 60%/7.4 in 2018. So yeah, Roby can play.

This past year Roby just didn’t seem all the way in it with the Broncos not being in contention. His play dipped because of it. Oscar said on the Better Rivals podcast that Roby had the second highest cover three grade, per PFF. Being able to thrive in zone is a huge part of Saleh’s defense. Roby reportedly wants $10 million annually. How he played prior to last year, he’s worth it. Not to mention Roby being able to play inside on passing downs so Witherspoon could stay outside. With some of the names we’ve mentioned, you can bet they will hold Roby accountable. The competitive streak in Roby should, too.