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What will be the 49ers most pressing defensive need come free agency?

Going through the Niners defense to determine which position will need an upgrade this offseason.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers are set at linebacker. Fred Warner just finished a great second-year with the team, where he played at a Pro Bowl level. Kwon Alexander was one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL prior to his injury. He’s only 25-years-old. Dre Greenlaw was a rookie who played so well that he allowed the team not to rush Alexander back from injury. Azeez Al-Shaair was an undrafted free agent that flashed but showed enough where he could be a development piece.

Light at cornerback

While linebacker is set, the other two levels of San Francisco’s defense could be in store for some turnover. Emmanuel Moseley had a great season when you put what he was asked to do into perspective. Moseley was essentially a rookie that was tasked to come off the bench early in the season. The 49ers didn’t miss much of a beat with Ahkello Witherspoon out. Moseley’s inexperience showed up at the worst possible times, which begs the question, should the 49ers look to upgrade? There are free agency and the draft, but money will be tight come March, and the Niners are without a few draft picks in April.

The team has Richard Sherman, who will be around for another year, but after that, there isn’t much depth on the roster. Tim Harris was a sixth-round draft pick. I wouldn’t put my eggs in his basket until he produces. Harris was on injured reserve during his rookie year, but that felt like more of a redshirt season. Jason Verrett is a free agent, and I can’t imagine the team bringing him back. K’Waun Williams is in the last year of his contract, and D.J. Reed is an unproven player. The 49ers should add a cornerback to the roster this offseason.

Roll the dice at safety?

One of the underrated moments of the season was around Week 5 when Jimmie Ward recovered from his injury, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had to make a decision. Tarvarius Moore was playing well, though a few missed tackles and inexperience had cost the defense a play here and there. Do you continue to roll with the youngster, or do you put a player in that hasn’t stayed healthy during his career and was coming back from his second injury since the 49ers offseason ended? Saleh rolled the dice on Ward and hit the number seven. Ward was one of the best safeties in the NFL and shored up the backends big plays and tackling.

Can Ward do it again? The front office will need to ask themselves if Ward is worthy of a long-term deal. Ward’s talent was never the issue, and he proved that in 2019. The 49ers could be in a Catch-22 situation. Sign Ward to a big deal, and you know what happens. Let Ward walk, and he stays healthy and continues to play at a high level. Moore doesn’t develop, and you’re stuck with an inexperienced safety in a season where free safety becomes more valuable as the pass rush inevitably takes a step back. Jaquiski Tartt and Marcell Harris are both entering the final years of their contract. Safety is a bigger need than what’s being discussed.

Depth along the defensive line

Ronald Blair and Damontre Moore are both unrestricted free agents. Losing those two really hurt the depth of this team. The starters had to play longer, and you could notice that later in games. Both are 27-years-old, which is plenty young enough to feel comfortable about giving a contract to. The 49ers should bring both edge rushers back. Neither will have a significant impact on the teams’ salary cap.

The interior defensive line is sitting pretty as DeForest Buckner’s extension is likely a season away, and D.J. Jones is manning the middle. Sheldon Day and Earl Mitchell are undrafted free agents, but we’re talking about 20 snaps maximum a game. You could sign a veteran defensive tackle for the minimum, and rely on Jullian Taylor and Kevin Givens to continue to develop. That’s a nice young core to work with.

One thing to keep an eye on is the team trying to move Solomon Thomas. They’re not going to cut him, as that would lead to zero cap savings and $8.9 million in cap space. Trading Thomas would save $4.3 million in cap space. If Thomas was ever going to make an impact, it was in 2019. Getting a Day 3 draft pick and unloading a little over four million in cap space is an easy decision for the 49ers. There’s a world that exists where two of Thomas, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford aren’t on the roster come September of 2020. Far-fetched, but there are plausible scenarios.

The 49ers may not have a glaring need on defense today, but it’s easy to see how the team could have holes on this side of the ball when free agency starts a month from now.