After having the same starting safety duo for most of the last eight years, the 49ers will look for a new safety for the second consecutive offseason.
The 49ers let longtime safety Jaquiski Tartt walk last season, replacing him with Talanoa Hufanga to pair with Jimmie Ward. When Ward injured his hamstring last August, the plan was for Tashaun Gipson to step in until Ward’s return. That plan changed with Emmanuel Moseley’s injury, moving Ward to the slot and keeping Gipson in the lineup.
How will the 49ers fill the void with both Ward and Gipson scheduled for free agency in a few weeks?
Bringing back Ward likely would be the best solution, but one that might be far and gone. Ward went to Instagram just a few days after the 49ers’ playoff exit to discuss his displeasure with the position change.
He, however, played well enough in the slot to help keep the 49ers’ pass defense afloat, but could be looking for a safeties contract in free agency. Both the Jets and Texans – who just so happen to have former 49ers defensive coordinators as their head coaches – need a safety, which means the market for Ward could prove challenging for the 49ers to retain the veteran.
Retaining Gipson would be the next option for the 49ers if Ward does sign elsewhere. Gipson’s five interceptions marked a career-high for the 32-year-old, who entered 2022 as Ward’s backup. Gipson’s good play played a role in Ward’s move, with him and Hufanga combing for nine interceptions.
There were some thoughts that Gipson was leaning toward retirement, but John Lynch mentioned that the veteran wants to play another year. With Gipson heading to free agency, the 49ers would have to re-sign him, but that’s likelier at the moment than a reunion with Ward.
The 49ers will look to the market if Ward and Gipson find new teams in the offseason. Jessie Bates would be the first name the 49ers look at after they showed interest last offseason before the Bengals gave him the franchise tag.
Bates will enter his age-26 season, having missed just three games over his five-year career with 14 interceptions, including a career-high four in 2022. Bates would be a good fit under Steve Wilks in a 49ers defense predicated on forcing turnovers.
The downside to Bates would be the potential price tag he carries. Spotrac has his market value at a four-year deal worth $14 million annually, just under twice what cap space the 49ers have available. That space can and probably will be made over the coming weeks with potential restructures, making Bates a realistic option.
Jordan Poyer would be a cheaper option than Bates – projected to receive $11 million annually according to Spotrac – but will enter his age 32 season next year.
Even though Poyer missed five games last season, he finished with four interceptions, just one off his career-high, and has been relatively healthy the last few seasons. Including the five games missed in 2022, Poyer has missed just six games the past five years in Buffalo, establishing himself as one of the better safeties in the league.
The 49ers also have ten picks in April’s draft to help fill the need at safety, but with no selections until the third round, finding a day-one starter will be difficult. Drafting for depth is always fine, but the 49ers will need to find their starter in free agency.