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How 49ers will address secondary during NFL free agency, draft

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Ambry Thomas

The 49ers entered the 2021 offseason with only one of their starting five defensive backs under contract.

But the club managed to avoid an overhaul of the secondary as they brought back the entire group.

The 49ers re-signed cornerback Jason Verrett, strong safety Jaquiski Tartt and nickel back K’Waun Williams to one-year contracts. They also locked up cornerback Emmanuel Moseley to a two-year deal.

It will be easier this offseason to bring back their top defensive backs — if that’s what general manager John Lynch desires.

The 49ers' pass defense ranked sixth in the league, allowing just 206.5 yards passing per game. In the postseason, the 49ers allowed 250.7 yards per game, but allowed only three touchdowns with two interceptions.

Tartt, Williams and Verrett are scheduled to be free agents. The 49ers have to decide whom among those to bring back while also putting together alternative plans.

Here’s a look at the 49ers’ situation in the defensive backfield:

Left cornerback

Verrett began the season as the starter, and he was a player being counted upon to be the clear No. 1 cover man on the team. But Verrett’s season came to an end with a torn ACL in the fourth quarter of the opener at Detroit.

If Verrett wishes to continue his career, the 49ers could easily bring him back on another one-year contract. He stands a good chance to be ready for the opening of the 2022 season.

When Moseley was healthy, he was a starter — first on the right side, then on the left. As Moseley enters the the final year of his contract, he might not be guaranteed a starting job, but he is a favorite for one of those spots.


Veteran Josh Norman was brought in to be a backup. He ended up starting 14 games at cornerback in 2021. He was called for a team-worst 10 penalties: six pass interference, six defensive holding, one taunting.

He was benched late in the season in favor of the reliable Dontae Johnson, who is also scheduled for free agency. Johnson could easily be re-signed. It would be a surprise if the 49ers entertained that possibility with Norman.

Right cornerback

The 49ers identified “starter’s traits” in Ambry Thomas, whom the selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The 49ers thought it would be a difficult transition for Thomas, who opted out of the 2020 season and had to greatly increase his strength to play at this level.

Thomas showed nothing in training camp but continued to make strides behind the scenes. When he was forced into the starting lineup late in the season at Cincinnati, he showed promise. He seemed to get a little better each game.

There is something here, but Thomas has to avoid a phenomena we’ve seen from other 49ers who had some success at the ends of their rookie seasons. He needs to come back hungrier, rather than feeling as if he’s got it all figured out.

Thomas, like Moseley, does not have a starting job guaranteed. But, like Moseley, he heads into the offseason as a favorite if he continues to work hard at his craft.

Competition figures to come from Verrett or anyone the 49ers select in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The 49ers have second- and third-round picks at Nos. 61 and 93 overall. The can also get a premium draft pick or two from a trade of Jimmy Garoppolo. Any of those selections could be used to bring in a cornerback to challenge for a starting job.

Nickel back

Williams has been the 49ers’ starting nickel back for each the past five seasons. Prior to the team’s first playoff game, coach Kyle Shanahan described Williams as one of the top nickel backs in the NFL.

Deommodore Lenoir had a good training camp and looked to be in line to eventually take over for Williams. But Lenoir fell down the depth chart after struggling in the first three games of the season.

The first priority will be for the 49ers to re-sign Williams, 30, to a one-year contract.

Strong safety

The 49ers expect to arrive at lucrative, long-term contract agreements with Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa. So they will have to cut costs in other areas.

Jaquiski Tartt’s season ended in disappointment with a dropped interception against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game. Overall, he had a very good season. But this could be an area in which the 49ers look to make a change.

Tarvarius Moore would have competed for the starting job a year ago. But he sustained a torn Achilles during the offseason program and was lost for the season. Originally scheduled to be a free agent this year, his contract tolled. That means the 49ers have him for one more season.

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Assuming Moore gets healthy and up to speed, he and Talanoa Hufanga could compete for the starting job. A possible draft pick from the middle rounds would also have the opportunity to compete.

Free safety

Jimmie Ward, who kept everything together in the secondary with so many moving parts around him, will be back. He is the most valuable member of the 49ers' defensive backfield.

Ward has one more year remaining on his contract, and the 49ers could look to free up a little cap room this year with a multi-year extension.

The 49ers will target a versatile safety in the draft and sign a minimum-salaried veteran player to compete for the job as Ward’s backup.

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