The 49ers have 28 impending free agents, including a handful of impact players who played pivotal roles in the 49ers' deep playoff run this past season. In addition, there are a few players slated to hit free agency who would be very difficult for the 49ers to replace, but none more so than safety Jaquiski Tartt.
That’s no slight to players like Laken Tomlinson or DJ Jones, but what ultimately separates Tartt from those two is no clear replacement for what Tartt brings to the 49ers secondary. At least with Tomlinson and Jones, there are viable options either already on the roster or on the free-agent market.
There is a path to a player like Aaron Banks filling in at left guard and playing at a competent enough level to keep the left side of the offensive line intact. Likewise, there is a plausible outcome that sees former first-round pick Javon Kinlaw round into form and gives the 49ers a level of starting-caliber play at the nose tackle position.
I have trouble envisioning the 49ers finding a viable option to replace Tartt on the open market or through the draft. There is no ready-made replacement currently on the roster, and the free-agent pool lacks a player who can come in and seamlessly do what Tartt does in this defense.
When I say that, I have to emphasize just how special of a talent and how unique of a player Tartt is. At 6’1 220 pounds, Tartt has the size to line up near the line of scrimmage while also having the range and speed to cover on the back end. Given the way the 49ers like to drop their safeties in the box, that kind of size is a necessity.
That versatility inside the box is beyond valuable, as Tartt is among the best safeties in the league when it comes to filling gaps while defending the run. He consistently blows up plays at or near the line of scrimmage, something that never gets the notoriety it deserves because it doesn’t have the same allure to the common fan that sacks and turnovers do.
This is what makes the discourse around a player like Tartt so difficult, as there is not a quantifiable statistic that you can point to in a box score that can adequately describe the kind of impact Tartt has in a given game. People don’t have a box score stat to lean on when Tartt erases a big play by making a tackle near the line of scrimmage.
Let’s take that specific example. Say an opposing running back has a running lane with a clear path to explode into the second level and beyond. Tartt comes in and fills the gap and meets the ball carrier just beyond the line of scrimmage before bringing them down for a gain of two yards.
On a traditional box score, that reflects the same as any other tackle, despite it carrying much more significance in the overall outcome of a given game. Those kinds of plays stall drives and keep opposing teams off the scoreboard, yet they never get the recognition that a splash play like a sack or tackle for a loss will.
The same can be said about what Tartt does in coverage. The argument that always gets made to diminish the talent level of Tartt and Ward is the lack of turnovers. In order to produce turnovers regularly, you need opposing teams to be willing to throw the ball in your direction. That doesn’t happen at a high rate due to how frequently Tartt and Ward handle their assignments on the back end.
Ultimately a safety's primary job is to eliminate big plays, which is what Tartt does as 50% of one of the better safety duos in the league. This comes back to the box score mentality. You cant point to a traditional stat sheet and refer to a quantifiable number that will show you why a team didn’t throw in Tartt’s direction. As a result, the common fans' perception of an extremely talented player becomes tilted.
The other thing that is hard to quantify with any objective number or data point is Tartt's level of football IQ and instinct. This is a player who is consistently excelling when reading the required keys and who is regularly putting himself in positions to make game-changing plays.
Having someone who is dependable and reliable on the back end of your defense makes all the difference in the world. While it isn’t flashy and won’t get thrown on a highlight reel, being in the right spot at the right time over and over is invaluable to an NFL defense.
One thing that cannot be disputed is the statistical splits for the 49ers' defense with Tartt on the field vs. Tartt off of it over the last couple of seasons.
Here are some numbers from the 49ers' defense when Tartt plays over 50% of the defensive snaps since 2019
Points per game - 18.8
Total yards allowed per game - 289.5
Passing yards allowed per game - 185.3
Now, let’s compare that to when Tartt is not on the field for more than 50% of the defensive snaps.
Points per Game - 26.4
Total Yards per Game - 331.5
Passing Yards per Game - 222.3
That’s over a touchdown difference with him out there compared to when he is not, which is a massive point swing in the NFL. Tartt might not give you the flashy highlight reel that so many fans seem to desire. But what he will give you is a level of dependability that is extremely difficult to replace at the highest level of professional football.
He is a proven commodity that has the physical traits, possesses an incredible amount of cerebral ability, and is someone who is going to come in and give you 100% every time he shows up. A consummate professional with an expansive skillset is something teams scour for every season, and the 49ers have had the pleasure of having one like Tartt be a part of their organization for the last seven seasons.
So if you think there is a safety out there on the open market who possesses the work ethic, the physical ability, and the mental acumen that Tartt does, while also not being someone the 49ers would have to break the bank to sign, please point them out to me. Because I just don’t see an alternative out there that would even be a lateral move, let alone an upgrade, over someone who has been one of the 49ers' most important players in recent memory.