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49ers’ Long-Term Plans at Free Safety and Strong Safety

49ers Safeties
© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers lost Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt for the remainder of the season, and fellow safety Eric Reid is in a contract year. What are the Niners’ long-term plans for the safety position?

 

When the San Francisco 49ers’ new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh began installing his version of the Cover-3 Press — a system made famous by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll — his most immediate task was finding a free safety who could play the integral “Earl Thomas” role. Although Saleh didn’t have a true free safety on the roster, he quickly learned that both cornerback Jimmie Ward and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt were able to play single-high safety — while not at Thomas’ level — surprisingly well for a duo that had no previous NFL experience at the position. Unfortunately for Saleh, and the 49ers’ defense as a whole, both Ward and Tartt are now on season-ending injured reserve.

49ers starting strong safety Eric Reid, who briefly participated in a failed experiment at linebacker after losing his starting job to Tartt, is now back at his natural position. However, Reid is in a contract year, and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2017 season. At free safety, the 49ers are now starting seventh-round draft pick Adrian Colbert, who has shown range at the position, but projects more as a backup than a long-term starter. The only other players on the 49ers’ active roster with experience at safety are newcomers Dexter McCoil and Antone Exum Jr.

So, what are the San Francisco 49ers’ long-term plans for the safety position?

Eric Reid

Reid is currently the second most expensive player on the 49ers’ roster, and will become a unrestricted free agent after this season unless he’s signed to a contract extension. The Niners were smart to exercise Reid’s fifth-year option, but 2017 may be the safety’s final year with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2013. Reid is a competent safety in the prime of his career, and will demand a contract that the 49ers are unlikely to pay for a player they essentially demoted earlier this season.

Jimmie Ward

Ward’s current $2.3 million salary jumps to $8.5 million in his 2018 option year. Ward is the best cornerback — and the best safety — on the 49ers’ roster. The biggest question mark surrounding the defensive back is his ability to stay healthy — he has only played a full season once in his four-year career. Still, Ward will likely be the 49ers’ starting free safety at the beginning of next season. Ward will have to remain healthy in 2018 if he expects to receive a large contract prior to becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2019.

Jaquiski Tartt

Tartt has remained mostly injury-free over his three-year career prior to last week’s injury. The safety — a second-round draft pick in 2015 — was relegated to a backup role for the majority of his time with the 49ers before finally cracking the starting lineup at strong safety this season. Tartt displayed surprising versatility when he replaced Ward at free safety and didn’t miss a beat at the new position. Tartt’s $1.4 million 2017 salary increases minimally to $1.6 million in 2018. Look for Tartt to start next season at strong safety, and for the 49ers to attempt to sign him to a contract extension before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2019.

Adrian Colbert

Colbert has the body and big-hitting ability of a strong safety, but has shown the range of a free safety in limited action this season. Colbert is also active on special teams, and even played some cornerback during the preseason. Provided Colbert continues to be competent at free safety, the position is his for the remainder of the season, and he will likely enter next season as a backup to the oft-injured Ward. As a late-round rookie, Colbert is signed to an inexpensive contract through 2020.

Other Options

Last month, the 49ers claimed Dexter McCoil off waivers from the Los Angeles Chargers, and waived fan-favorite rookie Lorenzo Jerome. McCoil previously played in the Arena League and Canadian Football League before signing with the Chargers last season. The 6-foot-4 McCoil can play both strong safety and linebacker, and is scheduled to make $1 million over the next two seasons before becoming a restricted free agent in 2019.

Jerome, who went undrafted in 2017, is a candidate for return to the 49ers, and has been courted by other NFL teams. Although Jerome stood out during the preseason, he has questionable long-term potential in the Niners’ defensive system due to his lack of size and speed.

Earlier this week, the 49ers signed Antone Exum Jr. to a one-year contract, as further insurance for the Niners’ secondary. Exum was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Although a large portion of his NFL experience is at nickel cornerback and on special teams, Exum started two games at safety in 2015. Exum has yet to play a regular season game since he sustained a leg injury during the 2016 preseason.

In March, the 49ers signed special-teams ace Don Jones to a fairly lucrative two-year contract, averaging over $1 million per year. Jones is listed as a safety, but has limited experience on the defensive side of the ball since coming into the league in 2013. Jones’ efforts to make the team as both a safety and special-teams player ended when he tore his ACL during the preseason. If the 49ers choose to retain Jones next season, he will become a unrestricted free agent in 2019.

Earlier this month, safety Tyvis Powell was signed to the 49ers’ practice squad. Powell was originally signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2016, and was released by the team at the end of the season. As the lone safety on the 49ers’ practice squad, Powell could be used as a short-term solution if a safety sustains a mid-week injury.

Predictions

  1. The 49ers let Reid walk in free agency.
  2. The 49ers start Ward at free safety and if healthy, attempt to extend him during the 2018 season.
  3. The 49ers attempt to extend Tartt this offseason. The 49ers start Tartt at strong safety in 2018, and move him to free safety in 2019 if Ward leaves the team.
  4. The 49ers retain Colbert as a backup safety in 2018.
  5. The 49ers draft one or two additional safeties in the mid-to-late rounds of next year’s draft.
  6. If healthy, the 49ers retain Jones in 2018 for use on special teams, but do not re-sign him in 2019.

 

What do you think the San Francisco 49ers should do at the safety position?

 

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Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers, a FanRag Sports network partner. You may have seen Chris’ work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, NinerNoise, 49erswebzone, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.

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