49ers struggled at safety in 2018 but they didn’t sign free agents; here’s what they did

The safety position was unquestionably the 49ers’ most problematic last season.

They dealt with injuries and uneven play starting in Week 1 that was a constant throughout the season. It was widely believed the team would invest heavily in the position through free agency to bolster a mediocre pass defense.

Yet so far, the answer has been to bring back players from the 2018 group instead of diving into the deep pool of free-agent stars such as Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu.

The 49ers this week kept pending free agent Jimmie Ward, a 2014 first-round draft pick who ended four of his five seasons on injured reserve, and Antone Exum Jr., who began the year as a backup but started seven games and played both safety spots.

“We know (those) guys,” coach Kyle Shanahan said Thursday. “Exum did a heck of a job last year stepping in, playing in a position he hadn’t played before. Really stepped it up. Had an opportunity because of injuries and got better each game.

“Jimmie Ward has played at an extremely high level throughout his career when he’s been healthy. We all know he’s struggled to stay healthy, which has been unfortunate for him. He played very hard. He’s very talented.”

What Shanahan didn’t mention is the cost. Ward reportedly signed a prove-it one-year contract worth roughly $5 million. Exum will presumably sign a modest deal, as he’ll likely be on the roster bubble come training camp.

Thomas, who turns 30 in May, secured a four-year, $55 million contract from the Ravens that includes $32 million in guarantees. Mathieu signed a three-year, $42 million contract to join Kansas City.

Shanahan made it clear he believes in building defenses from front to back while other teams are doing the opposite. There’s a belief that because passing games are becoming so fast and calculated, the pass rush can be neutralized with plays designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quickly. That has led to teams, like the Ravens and Chiefs, investing more heavily in the secondary than the defensive front.

The 49ers, meanwhile, gave out massive contracts to pass rusher Dee Ford (five years, $87.5 million) and linebacker Kwon Alexander (four years, $54 million).

“If you can’t block people ... it’s tough to pull off whether people are getting open or not,” he said. “You can help people at times get open versus better players and stuff, but it’s very tough to help people block guys all day.”

Added general manager John Lynch: “I know in my career I learned the tough way that in Tampa, (counting to) ‘three Mississippi’ was a lot easier than the ‘five Mississippi’ I grew to know in Denver. That’s no disrespect to the guys that I played with in Denver. It’s just we had something special. It makes everybody better. I think that’s always been true in football, and that holds true today.”

Ward spent last offseason playing cornerback with the starting defense while Richard Sherman was recovering from his Achilles’ tear. This year, it sounds like Ward is going to move back to free safety full time after being arguably the team’s best player there last season.

“To have Jimmie back here with the talent he has and if he can stay healthy, and we’re going to give him every chance to, we know we’ve got as good of a safety as we can get,” Shanahan said.

Coleman’s addition gives RBs flexibility

There’s obvious overlap in the 49ers’ group of running backs now that former Falcon Tevin Coleman is rejoining Shanahan. But that could be a good thing that allows for more flexibility.

Jerick McKinnon, last year’s projected starter, is still recovering from an ACL tear. Adding Coleman gives the 49ers a starter and allows the team to be more patient with McKinnon’s rehab.

“You’ve got to be patient regardless of the situation, not just having Tevin, but all the guys we played with last year makes us feel that we can be patient and be smart,” Shanahan said. “Regardless, you don’t have a choice. You always have to be patient and smart. The more guys you have, the easier it is.”

Shanahan was forced to start backups for most of the year, though some looked like starters at times. Matt Breida led the team in rushing but now appears to be the third halfback on the depth chart. Raheem Mostert, mostly known for special teams, is the clear No. 4.

The flexibility could be important because Breida dealt with ankle issues throughout the campaign and Mostert was lost for the year in early November with a fractured arm.

Coyle retires; 49ers find a replacement

Linebacker Brock Coyle suffered a painful C4 compression fracture in his back in the season opener. The result is, he won’t play in the NFL again.

That’s what Coyle announced on social media Thursday soon after he was released by the 49ers with a failed physical designation.

“Injuries are a part of this game and it is a risk all players willingly take when we step on the field,” Coyle wrote. “Unfortunately, the injury I sustained last season is one that will prevent me from returning to the field again.”

To replace Coyle, the 49ers signed former Carolina Panthers linebacker David Mayo, a fifth-round draft pick in 2015 from Texas State. Mayo did the bulk of his work on special teams and started four games the past two seasons.