General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan put in a lot of work to solidify the unit earlier in the offseason. The secondary was a particular area that needed to be addressed with nine players who needed new deals following the 2020 campaign.
Lynch and Shanahan re-signed Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, Jaquiski Tartt and K’Waun Williams to short-term contracts. They also brought in some help for the front seven by inking free agent Samson Ebukam. In addition, the 49ers bolstered the defensive line by signing Zach Kerr, Maurice Hurst and Arden Key.
The defense will have a new leader next season. Robert Saleh is now the head coach of the New York Jets, paving the way for former linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans to take over as defensive coordinator.
Despite missing pass-rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford for virtually the entire season, the 49ers still finished sixth overall in defensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
As things stand, San Francisco will have 21 players from the defense up for new contracts following next season. Here are the defensive players who could hit free agency in 2022.
DL: Kerr, Hurst, Key, D.J. Jones, Daeshon Hall, Jordan Willis (UFAs)
Kentavius Street (RFA)
LB: Fred Warner, James Burgess (UFAs)
Azeez Al-Shahir (RFA)
CB: Verrett, Williams, Dontae Johnson (UFAs)
Ken Webster, Mark Fields (RFA)
S: Tartt, Marcell Harris, Tavarius Moore, Tony Jefferson, Tavon Wilson (UFAs)
Kai Nacua (RFA)
The obvious name that pops out from the list is All-Pro linebacker, Fred Warner. The 49ers will do everything they can to lock the 24-year-old up before he can ever negotiate with another team. Warner is priority No. 1 from the defense and will likely be in the running to become the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL.
Al-Shahir will get plenty of opportunities to be the starting SAM linebacker. The 23-year-old struggled in coverage last season. Pro Football Focus gave Al-Shahir a 49.9 grade in coverage, but he was solid against the run. Warner’s coverage skills help mask Al-Shahir’s deficiencies against the pass. Burgess is a depth piece who likely won’t see many defensive snaps unless injuries decimate the 49ers once again.
Upfront, San Francisco will be in a good position for at least another couple of seasons. Bosa and Arik Armstead are the focal points of the defensive line, and the hope is that 2020 first-round selection Javon Kinlaw will make a leap in his sophomore season.
Jones agreed to a one-year extension with the 49ers this offseason and appears to be the best of the bunch who could hit free agency next year. Jones started 14 games last season and racked up 14 games, 20 tackles, a career-high 3.0 sacks, and one pass defended. He should provide rock-solid play again in 2021.
It will be interesting to see if Kerr, Hurst or Key can have a Kerr Hyder-type year for the 49ers. Hyder signed a one-year deal with San Francisco prior to the 2020 season, and the move paid major dividends. Hyder was thrust into a bigger role due to all of the injuries and stepped up with 49 tackles as well as a team-high 8.5 sacks.
The 49ers lost Hyder in free agency when the veteran signed a three-year deal worth up to $16.5 million with the Seattle Seahawks. Although Kerr or Hurst likely won’t approach Hyder’s sack totals because of their positions, the Niners are hoping they will have a similar impact.
It seems like a make-or-break year for Street. The 2018 fourth-round pick appeared in 15 games last season, finishing with 11 tackles while playing 37 percent of the defensive snaps. However, if Street fails to show improvement or stay healthy, the 49ers will likely move on next offseason.
The NFL suspended Willis for the first six games of the 2021 campaign for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Both he and Hall will serve as reinforcements for the rest of the defensive line.
The secondary will be the focal point again next year. Verrett, Williams and Tartt all signed one-year contracts to remain in San Francisco. The NFL’s salary cap could increase by as much as $25.7 million for the 2022 season, which means veterans like the 49ers’ trio could get bigger paydays on the open market next offseason.
To help mitigate the potential loss of Verrett, Williams and Tartt, Lynch and Shanahan used three draft picks on players who will be a part of the backline of the defense. Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir and Talanoa Hufanga will have some pressure on them to show they can become NFL-caliber starters sooner than later.
Harris has been used in a hybrid role the past few seasons and has taken some snaps as a linebacker. However, Hufanga has the tools to fill that role, so Harris will need to earn his keep in 2021.
Moore suffered an Achilles injury that will keep him sidelined for the foreseeable future. He played well in relief last season and could have been in line to become the starter if Tartt moves elsewhere in 2022.
Jefferson is another x-factor for the defense. The eight-year pro last played for the Baltimore Ravens but was ultimately released after he tore his ACL in October 2019. Jefferson could be a difference-maker if he’s fully healthy. The 29-year-old has played at a high level at points throughout his career, including when he put up 74 tackles and six interceptions in 2018.
Wilson joins Jefferson as another veteran presence for the 49ers’ defense. He played in 15 games for the Indianapolis Colts last season, finishing with 26 tackles and one pass defensed.
Which corner do you think has the best chance to be re-signed by the 49ers? Which under-the-radar signing do you think will have the biggest for San Francisco next season?