Adrian Colbert

49ers expect 'much-improved' Richard Sherman after playing at '80 percent'

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USATSI

49ers expect 'much-improved' Richard Sherman after playing at '80 percent'

A case could be made that the most susceptible area of the 49ers' defense is in the secondary.

However, there is reason to believe it should perform better than last year, and that's even before adding reinforcements in the upcoming NFL draft.

That's because Richard Sherman -- far and away the 49ers' best cornerback last season -- is healthier now than he was then, according to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer.

"I’m told that Richard Sherman was at no better than 80% last year, and he only got there after significant improvement in early November, right around when the Niners played the Giants," Breer wrote in his Monday Morning Quarterback column.

"As such, San Francisco expects a much-improved version of the former All-Pro, which would give the roster a boost at a position where Ahkello Witherspoon struggled last year and Jason Verrett was added last month," Breer continued. "Another thing that should help: Sherman had surgery to have sutures, initially put in as part of the rehab process, removed from his heel after the season, and he’s felt a lot better since."

Despite recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, Sherman was able to perform at a similar level to his All-Pro years in Seattle this past season. He didn't record an interception, but he only allowed one reception every 20.2 coverage snaps according to Pro Football Focus, the third-best mark among all cornerbacks in the NFL.

Simply put, opposing quarterbacks didn't want to risk throwing at Sherman.

In addition to his value on the field, Sherman also served as an important veteran voice in the 49ers’ locker room and an extension of the coaching staff. With a defensive backfield that features young players such as Witherspoon, Tarvarius Moore, Adrian Colbert, D.J. Reed and others, Sherman will continue to have a role as an elder statesman.

The 49ers already have made some significant additions on defense this offseason with the trade for edge rusher Dee Ford and signing of linebacker Kwon Alexander. They're expected to further bolster the defense with the second overall pick in the upcoming draft, and suddenly San Francisco could have the makings of one of the league’s better front-seven alignments.

[RELATED: 49ers want their defensive line to be a 'dominant force']

If Sherman is considerably healthier than he was last year, though? Well, that could help transform the 49ers' biggest weakness into a strength.

And, given the additions to the front seven, perhaps a few more interceptions should be expected.

NFL free agency: Flooded safety market could work to 49ers' advantage

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AP

NFL free agency: Flooded safety market could work to 49ers' advantage

Editor's note: The free-agent signing period begins Wednesday at 1 p.m. This is Part Three of a series that examines the 49ers’ biggest offseason needs and their options in free agency. Previously, we focused on wide receivers and linebackers.

The 49ers entered the offseason one year ago feeling good about Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert as their starting safeties.

This year, nobody’s starting job is secure after both players struggled with injuries and consistency.

The 49ers received some encouraging production from rookie Marcell Harris, who started the final five games at strong safety. He placed himself into position to compete for a starting job.

The team would like to re-sign versatile defensive back Jimmie Ward. But his own history of injuries is the reason the 49ers are reluctant to offer him a multiyear contract extension.

For a team that recorded an all-time NFL worst two interceptions over the course of 16 games, the 49ers need some playmaking ability in their defensive backfield as they enter the free agent market.

On the roster

Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert, Marcell Harris, D.J. Reed, Tyvis Powell, Terrell Williams, Godwin Igwebuike, Tyree Robinson

On the market

The safety market is deep and talented, with longtime Seattle Seahawks star Earl Thomas the headliner. Thomas is to this defense at safety what Richard Sherman is at cornerback. The 49ers’ scheme is based on the Seahawks' defense, and nobody was better in the role of the “eraser” at free safety than Thomas.

Thomas, who turns 30 in May, missed 19 games over the past three seasons because of injuries. He sustained a broken left leg in the fourth game last season. Still, Thomas figures to garner a lot of attention on the open market. He has 28 interceptions in nine seasons, including three in just four games last year.

Thomas is not alone. Among the others who figure to be attractive targets on the open market are Landon Collins (New York Giants), Adrian Amos (Chicago), Tyrann Mathieu (Houston), Lamarcus Joyner (L.A. Rams), Ha-Ha Clinton Dix (Green Bay) and Tre Boston (Arizona).

Offseason approach

The safety market was slow last offseason, and teams appear less and less enthused about paying top dollar for the position. That could work to the 49ers’ advantage.

The 49ers have approximately $70 million in salary-cap room. They would like to add a player to replace Colbert in the starting lineup -- not so much because they are disappointed in him but because that means they would have upgraded the starting defense as well as the depth.

The 49ers figure to get involved with Thomas. But he is a Texas native, and the Dallas Cowboys tried to acquire him in a trade last offseason. Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard is the Cowboys' new defensive backs coach. Robert Saleh, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, worked with Thomas during his time in Seattle, so he knows what kind of value he brings to a defense.

2019 Senior Bowl: Several safeties could help secondary-needy 49ers

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USATSI

2019 Senior Bowl: Several safeties could help secondary-needy 49ers

One of the 49ers' priorities in the draft needs to be addressing the lack of depth in the secondary, especially at safety. They will have a chance to work with several candidates when they coach the South team at this year's Senior Bowl. 

The team lost three safeties -- Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward and Adrian Colbert -- to injured reserve in 2018. They rotated several other players in and out of the lineup as a result. 

A few younger players like Marcell Harris got the chance to get some valuable playing time as a result of the injuries, but the team should still add to their mix at safety. 

The good news is that the 2019 class is deep with quality safeties, and a few of the best will be on the South team in Mobile, Ala. There will be 10 total safeties in attendance, and here are four to keep an eye on.

SOUTH TEAM

Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State, 6-0, 215
Abram will probably be the most-hyped safety in Mobile upon his arrival. He has good size, and is very athletic. 

He registered 99 tackles in his final season at Mississippi State as a transfer from Georgia. 53 of his tackles were solo, and nine were for a loss. He also managed five pass breakups, two interceptions and three sacks. 

As a very physical player, Abram's strength lies in his run coverage. But, his aggressiveness can get the best of him. His quickness and speed to provide pass coverage is decent, but will need some fine tuning. 
Projection: Rounds 1-2 

[RELATED: Antonio Brown, Jerry Rice reportedly push idea of receiver's trade to 49ers]

Juan Thornhill, Virginia, 6-0, 210
Another sizable safety, Thornhill is a former defensive back and a great tackler. He added 15 pounds to his frame to become a safety, and didn’t lose his speed. The UVA product is also mobile, and has great hands. 

Thornhill is great against the run, and has played in the box as a linebacker. He's a smart player, with a lot versatility. 

In his final season in Charlottesville, Thornhill registered 98 tackles (62 solo). He had 4.5 tackles for a loss, six interceptions and seven pass breakups.
Projection: Rounds 2-3 

[RELATED: No shortage of athletic guards who fit 49ers scheme at 2019 Senior Bowl]

Jaquan Johnson, Miami, 5-11, 195
Johnson is known as a hard hitter, and a head-hunter. He’s not great in coverage, yet packs a punch for his size. He needs to sharpen up on the angles he takes to get to the ball.

He finished his senior season with 92 tackles (44 solo,1.5 for a loss). He also managed two interceptions. 
Projection: Rounds 3-5

NORTH TEAM

Nasir Adderley, Deleware, 6-0 200 
Adderley is the speedster of the group. He is another safety with experience at cornerback, and that helped him develop his coverage skills. Coming from a smaller school, Adderley will have more to prove at the Senior Bowl.

Adderley has more modest stats than the rest of his group, but game stats aren’t everything. He registered 48 total tackles (31 solo), but did have nine pass break ups and snagged three interceptions. He could provide value in a later round.
Projection: Later rounds