San Francisco 49ers

49ers free agency guide: Improving a lackluster defense

Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas celebrates a play against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas celebrates a play against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) AP

There are opposing philosophies when it comes to NFL free agency. The 49ers’ old regime, headed by former general manager Trent Baalke, normally avoided courting pricey veterans. After all, those players on the open market usually cost far more than they’re actually worth, much like buying a new car only to see its value dip drastically after driving it off the lot.

Other teams don’t have a problem overpaying for the right players. The Jaguars, for example, built arguably the NFL’s best defense two years ago around free-agent cogs such as defensive linemen Calais Campbell (four years, $60 million) and Malik Jackson (six years, $85.5 million) – and cornerback A.J. Bouye (five years $67.5 million).

Jacksonville wound up getting all the way to the AFC title game during the 2017 season on the strength of that defense, but followed it up with a 5-11 campaign last year. Now the team is expected to move from Jackson and others to clear cap space in order to sign quarterback Nick Foles. That’s all part of the peaks and valleys of building a team through free agency.

The Rams, who played in the most recent Super Bowl, built their team on expensive veterans both through free agency and trades. They signed defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh for one year and $14 million, added cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters via trade, and swapped a first-round pick with the Patriots for wideout Brandin Cooks, later inking him to a five-year, $80 million contract. Los Angeles has arguably the most talented roster in the conference because of their willingness to spend on veterans.

The 49ers are entering a crucial time in Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s tenure. They’re 10-22 in their two seasons at the helm and the pressure is mounting to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 campaign. And the team has $67 million in cap space according to overthecap.com, once again near the top of the NFL, which should be more than enough to be aggressive.

Here, we’ll break into the first of a two-part free agency preview. We’ll look at San Francisco’s defense first and the possible additions Lynch and Shanahan could make when the new league officially kicks off at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The legal tampering period opens Monday, allowing pending free agents to negotiate with new clubs.

Interior defensive line

Need: 2/10

Defensive tackle is arguably San Francisco’s deepest and most talented position group, thanks to using first-round picks in three of the past four drafts here (Arik Armstead 2015, DeForest Buckner 2016, Solomon Thomas 2017). The team decided to bring back Armstead on his fifth-year option despite dealing with injuries throughout his pro career and logging just nine sacks in four seasons. Thomas, entering Year 3, hasn’t lived up to expectations while Buckner is evolving into a star. If the 49ers make a key addition here in free agency, they might target a player that could rush the passer but also hold up against the run at nose tackle after moving on from veteran Earl Mitchell. They appear stocked with athletic pass rushers along the interior otherwise.

Expensive fits: Suh, Sheldon Richardson (Vikings), Corey Liuget (Chargers), Timmy Jernigan (Eagles)

Lower-cost fits: Domata Peko (Broncos), Haloti Ngata (Eagles), Ricky Jean Francois (Lions)

Edge Rusher

Need: 9/10

The signs are pointing to San Francisco using its first-round draft pick on the position, perhaps with Ohio State’s Nick Bosa at No. 2 overall. Otherwise, the team’s cupboard is lacking along the edge, which is arguably the most important position on any defense. The 49ers could use multiple upgrades here at both “Leo” defensive end and “Sam” linebacker. Cassius Marsh was the top option in 2018 and 4.5 of his 5.5 sacks came in two games, meaning he had just a single sack during the other 14. The market is well-stocked with edge defenders this spring in contrast to recent seasons when the market was bare due to players getting the franchise tag.

Expensive fits: Justin Houston (Chiefs), Trey Flowers (Patriots), Dante Fowler Jr. (Rams), Ezekiel Ansah (Lions), Anthony Barr (Vikings)

Lower-cost fits: Za’Darius Smith (Ravens), Preston Smith (Washington), Bruce Irvin (Falcons), Shaquil Barrett (Broncos), Alex Okafor (Saints), Shane Ray (Broncos)

Linebacker

Need: 8/10

The 49ers are optimistic about their depth at linebacker with Elijah Lee and Brock Coyle sticking around. But neither should be considered sure-fire starters if the defense wants to take a drastic jump in 2019 after releasing Reuben Foster in November. Fred Warner, a 2018 third-round draft choice, hit the right notes as a rookie, but he needs help with Foster gone, which is why adding an established veteran through free agency might be the way to go. The good news: Even the NFL’s best linebackers won’t break the bank and San Francisco shouldn’t have any problem landing an impact player given its cap flexibility.

Expensive fits: C.J. Mosley (Ravens), Jordan Hicks (Eagles), K.J. Wright (Seahawks), Kwon Alexander (Buccaneers)

Lower-cost fits: Thomas Davis (Panthers), Jamie Collins (Browns), Manti Te’o (Saints), Brandon Marshall (Broncos)

Safety

Need: 8/10

The 49ers fielded arguably the worst safety group in the NFL last season largely due to injuries. The top two free safeties, Adrian Colbert and Jimmie Ward (a pending free agent), ended the season on injured reserve, forcing players such as Antone Exum Jr. and rookie fifth-round pick D.J. Reed into action. Jaquiski Tartt and Marcell Harris look like a promising tandem at strong safety while Tartt could potentially move to free safety if needed. In all, San Francisco used eight different combinations throughout the year – and Exum is slated for free agency. All eyes will be on former Seahawks Earl Thomas, who would be a perfect fit in coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme built to resemble Seattle’s. Thomas aside, the free-agent crop of safeties is deep, which should benefit San Francisco.

Expensive fits: Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu (Texans), Lamarcus Joyner (Rams), Ha Ha Clinton Dix (Washington)

Lower-cost fits: Ward, Glover Quin (Lions), Tre Boston (Cardinals), Exum

Cornerback

Need: 5/10

There’s no doubt the 49ers need to get improved play from their cornerbacks. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the answer will come in free agency. The team used third-round picks in the past two drafts on the position, Ahkello Witherspoon (2017) and Tarvarius Moore (2018), who have each shown promise but remain early in their development. Richard Sherman appears to have a season or two of stellar play left in the tank, but the future of the position remains somewhat murky. And because the team prizes long, physical corners, the pool of potential fixes in free agency seems shallow. The best avenue toward improving might be Witherspoon and Moore competing hard this offseason – or bringing Ward back, though he might be better at safety than corner.

Possible fits: Pierre Desir (Colts), Eric Rowe (Patriots), Bradley Roby (Broncos), Morris Claiborne (Jets)

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