As we get closer to free agency, we’re discussing potential free agents the 49ers should pursue on the open market, and which of their unrestricted free agents they should retain.
Before we get there, let’s take a step back and look at how the free agents from last year panned out.
Mooney Ward - A+
The 49ers gave Ward their biggest financial commitment of any cornerback since Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch took over in 2017. San Francisco was fresh off a season where Jason Verrett suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 and Ambry Thomas wasn’t ready for the spotlight. That left a massive void opposite of Emmanuel Moseley.
Mooney did not disappoint.
The 49ers signed Ward for what he could be, not what he had accomplished. Ward was a relatively unknown player who had four interceptions in four seasons. There’s no doubt the former Kansas City Chief had a career year, despite that interception total staying low.
Ward was among the league leaders in completion percentage allowed and forced incompletions, all while allowing only two touchdowns in coverage and being a menace against the run.
It was only one season, but the 49ers hit the jackpot with Mooney — a player still ascending and expected to improve in Year 2.
Ray-Ray McCloud - A
The 49ers finished 19th in kickoff return DVOA at -2.1 this past year. For context, the team’s kick return DVOA in 2021 was -9.8, dead last in the NFL. San Francisco was league average in punt return DVOA at -0.5 in ‘21. That figured jumped to 5.5 last season, good for fifth in the NFL.
That’s all Ray-Ray McCloud, who was one of the most productive returners in the NFL. He consistently flipped the field for the 49ers, and it felt like he was this close to returning a kick for a touchdown on several occasions.
The 49ers gave McCloud a deal worth up to $10.4 million, which tells you how much they valued McCloud’s return ability.
Ray-Ray had a 71-yard rushing touchdown when Deebo Samuel was out in Week 16. Ten of his 14 receptions went for first downs. Much like when he was a returner, whenever McCloud touched the ball, it went for a first down.
George Odum - B+
Odum led the NFL in special teams tackles and helped shore up the 49ers coverage units that were laughably bad the year before.
The 49ers defense had the best starting field position in the NFL. That’s in part due to touch backs, but a strong special teams core led by Odum deserves most of the credit.
Some figured Odum’s deal worth up to $10.95 million meant he’d replace Jaquiski Tartt, but that was always Talanoa Hufanga’s job to lose. Since Odum didn’t contribute defensively, he didn’t get an A grade. But he was a difference-maker on special teams, which was precisely why the 49ers signed the former Colts safety.
Hassan Ridgeway ended up playing seven games, but was worth a one-year, $2.5 million deal to replace D.J. Jones. Oren Burks was the only other signing outside the building, until the season started.
Tashaun Gipson - A+
Gipson started all seven games, had five interceptions — I’d argue he could’ve had ten — and didn’t allow a touchdown all season. Gipson patrolled the middle of the field and was opportunistic.
The 49ers signed Gipson to a one-year deal with a base salary of $1.1 million, and Gipson had one more missed tackle (5) and tackle for loss (4).
If Mooney Ward was the prized possession of the 49ers 2022 free agent class, Gipson was the diamond in the rough. His play shouldn’t be taken for granted. Gipson is an unrestricted free agent, which means we could be looking at a different safety on the back end next year.