San Francisco 49ers

49ers rebuild defense, but one of the top safeties in free agency signs with another team

The 49ers have made it clear they’re prioritizing defense with the start of NFL free agency this week. But they won’t land arguably the top safety on the market.

Former Seattle Seahawks All-Pro Earl Thomas is heading to the Baltimore Ravens, as first reported by ESPN, where he’ll receive a four-year, $55-million contract.

The deal reportedly includes $22 million in guarantees, to be given out in the first nine months. Thomas’ $13.75 million average annual salary checks in just below safety Tyrann Mathieu’s $14 million per season on his three-year agreement to join the Chiefs.

Thomas made sense as a priority target for San Francisco, given his familiarity with the team’s defensive scheme, but there’s been no indication the 49ers were willing to break the bank with a competitive offer. General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan this week already gave out a four-year, $54-million contract — with few guarantees — to former Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander.

The 49ers on Tuesday also put together a blockbuster trade to acquire Kansas City Chiefs Pro-Bowl pass rusher Dee Ford. San Francisco is sending a 2020 second-round pick to the Chiefs and has agreed to a five-year, $87.5-million deal after Ford was given the franchise tag by Kansas City.

The deals could become official when the NFL’s new league year began Wednesday at 1 p.m. San Francisco entered the week with $66 million in cap space.

The 49ers still seem likely to be active on the safety market. They remain fond of their own pending free agent Jimmie Ward, who was arguably the team’s best free safety before suffering a fractured forearm in November that sent him to injured reserve. There are clear questions about his durability. Ward has ended four of his five seasons on IR with fractured bones after being drafted in the first round in 2014.

Other free-agent safeties include Tre Boston (Arizona), HaHa Clinton-Dix (Washington) and Glover Quin (Detroit).

San Francisco’s depth chart features Adrian Colbert, Jaquiski Tartt, D.J. Reed and Marcell Harris. Antone Exum Jr., who has played both safety spots, is also a free agent.