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49ers potential NFL free agent target: Earl Thomas

We’re taking a look at impending free agents the 49ers could target at the start of the league year.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan enter into Year 3 at the helm of the San Francisco 49ers. With a slew of roster needs and some $65 million in salary cap space, the 49ers could be among the more active teams in free agency. In this series, we’ll be taking a look at impending free agents that could be on the team’s radar at the start of the league year on March 13.

Safety is among the 49ers’ most depleted position groups. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh fielded eight different combinations in 2018 as he adapted to injuries. Starting duo Adrian Colbert (ankle) and Jaquiski Tartt (forearm) both landed on injured reserve in 2018. Neither played well before their season-ending injuries. San Francisco is in dire need of an upgrade, particularly at free safety, one of the most critical positions in Saleh’s 4-3 scheme.

Fortunately for the 49ers, the prototype is about to hit the open market. After nine seasons in Seattle, three-time All Pro free safety Earl Thomas is slated for free agency.

In the last year of his contract, Thomas began 2018 with an unsuccessful offseason holdout in hopes for a new deal. Four games into the year, Thomas broke his leg and his season was over. It was an unceremonious sendoff for a veteran leader and critical cog in one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. There’s clearly no love lost between Thomas and the Seahawks, so a reunion with former teammate Richard Sherman in San Francisco to say thanks twice a year seems inevitable.

Thomas essentially wrote the book on what the 49ers need from their free safety. At 29, he’s still among the best defenders in the NFL and would offer an immediate impact for a struggling secondary. Thomas intercepted three passes in four games last season. The entire 49ers defense only managed two in 2018.

Colbert was a pleasant surprise for the 49ers at free safety as a rookie but was unable to build off the momentum in 2018. He was among the worst at his position this season, earning an abysmal 31.7 overall grade from Pro Football Focus. Thomas’ 91.3 ranked second among safeties, while earning a 90.6 in coverage and 90.4 in run support during his four-game sample.

Thomas will likely command a contract that places him among the top earners at his position in the NFL. Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry signed a six-year, $78 million contract in 2017 with an annual value of $13 million. Thomas will likely command a similar yearly salary over a shorter total contract. For the 49ers, Thomas would be money well spent.