With the new league year just around the corner, it’s time to start talking free agents and who the 49ers should pursue in the coming weeks. The 49ers have a few different areas of need, but one of the utmost importance is solidifying their secondary by bringing in a veteran cornerback to start opposite Emmanuel Moseley.
Enter Casey Hayward Jr., who spent this past season with the Las Vegas Raiders. Hayward is a 10-year NFL veteran who is coming off of a campaign that saw him playing at an above-average level. The 49ers secondary would get a significant boost from a player like Hayward, benefiting greatly from the wealth of experience that comes with a decade of playing in the league.
On top of the experience, Hayward also comes with a tremendous amount of versatility. In 2021, Hayward nearly split his time evenly on both the right and left wide corner spots, logging 535 snaps from the right side and 549 from the right. This kind of flexibility is enormous for the 49ers from a schematic standpoint and in case of injury within the secondary.
The 49ers would feasibly be able to slide Hayward into either the field or boundary role based on whatever is needed in a given week. That kind of adaptability would be invaluable to a 49ers team that has dealt with injuries at the cornerback position in each of the last few seasons.
Hayward would also be a great fit for the 49ers from a schematic standpoint, as he has spent the last five seasons playing under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Hayward has years' worth of reps playing at a high level in a scheme predicated on a Cover 3 shell similar to what DeMeco Ryans is running in with the 49ers.
In 2021, Hayward allowed a reception rate of 54.5% on 55 targets in the regular season, which ranked 2nd best in the league among cornerbacks who played all 17 games, trailing only Patriots cornerback JC Jackson. Hayward's durability was also on full display, as his 676 coverage snaps ranked 3rd in the league among all cornerbacks.
Hayward didn’t allow a touchdown in coverage for the first 14 games of the 2021 season, logging over 440 coverage snaps before allowing an opposing receiver to get into the end zone on his watch. Hayward also held his opponents to under 30 yards receiving in 14 of the 17 regular-season games he appeared in.
For a 49ers team that was plagued with discipline issues in the secondary last season, Hayward would also provide a bit of dependability from a discipline standpoint. Hayward was only charged with four penalties in his 676 coverage snaps, never having more than one in the same game. 13 games worth of penalty-free football would be a major step forward for the 49ers' secondary that was flagged at the highest rate in the NFL last season.
So you have a veteran player with extended experience in a similar scheme, coming off of a solid year that saw him play at a high level for the majority of the season. That’s not going to be cheap, but it certainly is within the 49ers' budget to make a deal for Hayward work.
How much exactly it will cost is the question. The Raiders were able to hit a home run last offseason when they signed Hayward to a 1-year deal worth 2.5 million dollars. There is no chance Hayward signs a team-friendly deal like that this time around after the season he just put together.
I’d project it to be closer to the 8-9 million dollar per year range, ideally on a two-year deal, which would still be adequate value for the 49ers if Hayward is able to match the level of production he displayed in 2021.
It just makes too much sense for both sides. The 49ers solidify their secondary with a veteran corner playing at a high level, who also has familiarity with the defense they’ll be running. Hayward gets a nice payday from a team that has serious aspirations of contending for a title in the immediate future.