The 49ers have largely done an impressive job of shoring up areas of need on their roster during the opening days of free agency. By bringing back Tashaun Gipson and Jake Brendel and making an unexpected splash by signing Javon Hargrave, San Francisco solidified potential weak spots at center, safety and defensive tackle.
However, with Jimmie Ward and Emmanuel Moseley each finding new homes with the Texans and the Lions respectively, the nickel cornerback role stands as arguably the biggest question-mark remaining on the roster.
The defensive front has lost key rotational pieces with Samson Ebukam signing with the Colts and Charles Omenihu heading to the Chiefs, but, following the addition of Hargrave to a group that already features Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, the D-Line still stands as a clear area of strength that will surely be added to.
San Francisco also still needs a kicker and is short of an experienced starter at right tackle, though the Niners may be banking on Colton McKivitz building on his encouraging performances in spot starts and making that role his own.
Betting on McKivitz’s development may be a risky plan, but his two-year extension does at least indicate a plan to replace the departed Mike McGlinchey.
There has as yet been no suggestion of such a plan at nickel.
Had Moseley been re-signed, the Niners would be set at all three corner spots. Deommodore Lenoir excelled in the slot last season before Moseley’s torn ACL forced him to shift outside, and he experienced no drop-off in play after making the switch. With both Moseley and Lenoir possessing inside-out versatility, the 49ers would have had two options at nickel.
Deommodore Lenoir’s strong postseason performance probably gave the 49ers enough confidence to let Emmanuel Moseley walk. Still a tough loss no matter how good they feel about Lenoir— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) March 14, 2023
Moseley is just 26 years old and was one of the best #2 corners in the league prior to injury
Had they retained Ward, he could have competed to return to safety while also offering the 49ers an experienced and reliable slot defender having thrived in the nickel role following Moseley’s injury.
Now the Niners must decide how they go about restocking the cupboard of slot defenders, with San Francisco boasting only one in-house option on the roster at present.
That in-house option is Samuel Womack III, last year’s fifth-round pick who initially won the starting nickel job as a rookie, only to be swiftly replaced by Lenoir. Womack received little playing time on defense thereafter, and did not appear ready to make the jump when he was occasionally called into action.
His rookie season was not too dissimilar to that of Lenoir, who impressed in Week 2 of 2021 before a shaky showing in Week 3 saw him benched, and the 49ers may be hoping Womack’s early career path bears a striking resemblance to that of Lenoir.
Given the importance of the slot, where defenders are tasked with stopping both quick and technically gifted receivers as well as more physically imposing ball-winning wideouts and tight ends who present size mismatches, in the modern game, the 49ers cannot afford to rely solely on Womack making the leap in his second year.
As such, adding competition at that spot is likely to be a priority for the 49ers in the remainder of the offseason.
The Niners can add an experienced nickel in free agency, but a strong class of prospects at corner could see them throw another rookie into the mix in the draft next month, when a safety who can play the slot while being groomed to take over from Gipson is also a distinct possibility.
Ward’s departure was anticipated, but the exit of Moseley is a significant blow to a secondary that is a lot stronger than in years gone by. The depth and flexibility the Niners had at nickel is gone, and they now must decide which avenues they are going to take to restore it.