Already at skeleton-crew levels, the 49ers did even more roster reducing Tuesday, releasing veteran safety Antoine Bethea.
“Antoine is a true professional in every sense and I have a great deal of respect for the way he has gone about his business throughout his career,” general manager John Lynch said in a statement. “We would like to thank him for the positive impact he has had on this team both as a player and as a leader, on and off the field.”
The 49ers signed Bethea, 32, to a four-year free-agent contract in 2014, and he paid immediate dividends with four interceptions, 10 batted passes and a Pro Bowl berth. In 2015, however, he tore his pectoral muscle in Week 7 and went on injured reserve. Last season, he started all 16 games and was the team’s lone defensive veteran presence most of the season.
Bethea, however, might have been an odd fit in a new 49ers defense that calls for a big, bruising safety who plays close to the line of scrimmage and a smaller, swifter free-safety counterpart who plays deep downfield. His release further suggests the 49ers are considering Jimmie Ward as their free safety and Eric Reid or Jaquiski Tartt as the strong safety.
This year, Bethea was to earn a base salary of $5.25 million, fourth highest on the team behind offensive tackle Joe Staley, linebacker NaVorro Bowman and linebacker Ahmad Brooks. His exit leaves the 49ers with more than $99 million in salary cap space when free agency begins at 1 p.m. Pacific Thursday.
The 49ers have just 57 players signed for this season. They will have 90 when they hold their first minicamp this spring, signaling they will be aggressive in free agency.
Earlier Tuesday, the team officially released wide receiver Torrey Smith, now a free agent. Lynch praised Smith, the 49ers’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2016.
“The 49ers would like to thank Torrey for representing this organization with tremendous class over the last two years,” Lynch said. “I have always had great respect for his skill as a player and as a wonderful example of how professional athletes can use their platform to make a difference in our community.”