This item is part of a series on the positions the 49ers will look to fill in the upcoming draft and the players that are the best fits at those spots. Today's position:
Description: General manager John Lynch earlier this week described what he and his evaluators are looking for: Earl Thomas. No, the player who fits this spot doesn't have to meet Thomas' exact dimensions, which aren't all that impressive: 5-10, around 200 pounds. But in order for the defense to function like Seattle's does, it's necessary to find a free safety as instinctual and as far-ranging as Thomas. The Seahawks defense is predicated on being aggressive and stuffing a maximum number of players -- eight -- inside the box. That only works, however, with a really talented free safety. This has been proven A.) when Thomas has been out with injuries as he was last year and B.) when Seattle defensive assistants have gone elsewhere and tried to replicate the Seahawks' defense. Perhaps one of the benefits of a single-high scheme is that, because the free safety often is so far down the field, it can get away with a smaller-sized player who may get skipped over in the draft by other teams. Indeed, two of the players listed below -- Budda Baker and Desmond King -- are under 6-feet tall. So is the current 49ers player coaches are eying for the spot ...
Who's there now: Jimmie Ward (5-11, 195) is the only player on the 49ers roster who could plausibly fill this role. The former first-round pick, who been a reserve safety, a nickel cornerback and outside cornerback heretofore in San Francisco, was a standout safety in high school and college and has the instincts, athleticism and aggression needed at the spot. His high-school coach in Mobile, Ala. always put his best players at safety, not cornerback, which is why Ward and Jaquiski Tartt played there. That sentiment could come full circle with the 49ers, as could the Ward-Tartt safety duo. The downside to Ward is that his first three seasons have been marked by foot, quadriceps and shoulder injuries. At a position as critical as free safety, can the 49ers afford to lean on a player who has been injury prone?
Need level: 7.3
Best fit: Ohio State's Malik Hooker showed great range and excellent ball skills last season. His seven interceptions tied for second in the nation and were three fewer than the entire 49ers defense had in 16 games. He also has very good size for someone at that position: 6-1, 206 pounds with 10 3/4-inch hands (which is bigger than most defensive linemen). That said, he currently is recovering from labrum (hip) and sports hernia surgeries, suggesting that his size doesn't mean he won't be prone to injuries. Others: Budda Baker, Washington; Desmond King, Iowa; Marcus Williams, Utah; John Johnson, Boston College.