Ziggy Ansah

NFL Preview 2019: These four defensive players could surprise NFC West

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NFL Preview 2019: These four defensive players could surprise NFC West

The NFC West doesn't lack big names on defense.

The 49ers have their own collection of talent after adding pass rushers Dee Ford and Joey Bosa during the offseason, supplementing a group that already featured breakout defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and cagey veteran cornerback Richard Sherman. The Legion of Boom is no more in Seattle, but Bobby Wagner still headlines the Seahawks defense. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson rescinded his trade request and is staying in the desert -- although he will miss the first six games of the season due to a PED suspension.  Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams might have the NFL's best player on their roster in defensive lineman, Aaron Donald.

Those stars will shine brightly in 2019, but which players could join them? Here are four NFC West defenders -- one from each team -- who could surprise the rest of the division this season. 

John Johnson III, Los Angeles Rams S

Johnson had a very productive second NFL season last year, accounting for 82 tackles, 11 passes defended, four interceptions and a forced fumble. His name wasn't the one dominating headlines this offseason, however, after the Rams signed veteran safety Eric Weddle to play alongside him. 

The two should form one of the league's best safety duos next season, in large part because of Johnson's ability. Pro Football Focus gave Johnson an 86.1 coverage grade during the regular season, which was the fifth-best mark among safeties who faced at least 20 targets. The Rams will have eyes on their secondary because of Weddle, but those eyes could quickly shift their attention to Johnson. 

Ezekiel Ansah, Seattle Seahawks DE

Ansah is by no means an unknown, but he'll be tasked with filling a big hole for Seattle next season. The Seahawks traded edge rusher Frank Clark to the Kansas City Chiefs for a haul of picks before this year's draft and signed Ansah a couple weeks later. 

Clark led the Seahawks with 13 sacks in 2018, and Ansah is a good low-risk bet to replicate some of that production. Although injuries have limited Ansah to just 34 games over the last three seasons, he still has 18 sacks during that period. If he can stay healthy next season, Seattle's bet could pay off in a big way. 

Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals CB

Murphy stands to gain from Peterson's aforementioned suspension. After being pegged as a late first-rounder, the Cardinals selected Murphy with their first pick of the second round on the 2019 NFL Draft's second day. The Scottsdale native comes in with plenty of pedigree, being named First Team All-Pac-12 as well as first- or second-team All-America by various outlets in his final season at Washington. 

Although he is listed at 190 pounds and likely will need to bulk up before his first NFL season, Murphy should get an opportunity right away. If he can hit the ground running in his first six NFL games, the Cardinals' secondary looks a lot stronger once Peterson returns. 

[RELATED: Gould still unsure he'll report to 49ers if he's not traded]

Ahkello Witherspoon, 49ers CB

Witherspoon will face stiff competition from veteran Jason Verrett, but that could be a good thing for the 24-year-old. If he's able to beat out Verrett for the starting spot opposite Sherman, he arguably will have won the toughest position battle at this point in his career.

Although his second NFL season was up and down, Witherspoon is coming off of a strong offseason. NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco noted last month that Witherspoon was one of the defense's best players, and that his coverage really stood out. With opposing quarterbacks likely to continue avoiding Sherman at all costs, Witherspoon stands to see plenty of targets come his way next season. They might need to give that approach a second thought if Witherspoon continues along his offseason trajectory. 

Seven best NFL free agents still available right now heavy on defense

Seven best NFL free agents still available right now heavy on defense

The biggest fish have been reeled in, but there still are plenty left to catch in NFL free agency. 

That's good news for the 49ers and the Raiders. Although San Francisco and Oakland were two of the most active teams at the official start of the league year Wednesday, both still have some clear needs to address this offseason. 

The Raiders could use a backup quarterback, and their NFL-worst pass rush has gone unaddressed over a month out from the NFL draft. Meanwhile, the 49ers largely stood pat in the secondary, despite bringing back Jimmie Ward and Antone Exum.

So, which players could fill those aforementioned holes on either side of the Bay (or both)? Here are seven players who still are available in free agency and could make a big impact in the 2019 season. 

VIEW THE BEST REMAINING NFL FREE AGENTS HERE

49ers' free agency picture by position, need two days into negotiation period

49ers' free agency picture by position, need two days into negotiation period

The 49ers no longer have a need at inside linebacker after one-plus days of the NFL’s open negotiating period.

But all of the other spots where the 49ers need reinforcements remain unchanged. And, in some cases, there are not any realistic, impactful options available on the free-agent market at positions of need.

The 49ers zeroed in on free-agent linebacker Kwon Alexander on Monday and agreed to sign him to a four-year, $54 million contract to work alongside Fred Warner.

The 49ers, obviously, expect Alexander to make a full recovery from a torn ACL in his left knee to be the kind of elite playmaker he proved to be during his first three seasons with the Buccaneers, which included one trip to the Pro Bowl.

So, where does this leave the 49ers with the official beginning of the NFL free-agent signing period scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Wednesday?

Edge rusher

Connecting the dots, the most likely addition would appear to be Ziggy Ansah.

After all, 49ers vice president of player personnel Martin Mayhew was the Detroit Lions' general manager when Ansah was selected with the No. 5 overall pick of the 2013 draft. And new 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek was Ansah’s position coach for five seasons.

Ansah, who turns 30 in May, is recovering from shoulder surgery, and no agreement appears imminent. NFL Network reported that Ansah is scheduled to visit the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints for physicals. The 49ers could get involved, too, and they would have to give him a careful examination.

Veteran edge rusher Justin Houston, whom the Kansas City Chiefs released, remains available on the open market. He also would provide an upgrade for a team that featured Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair as their top edge rushers last season.

Safety

Would the 49ers want to add Earl Thomas? The answer is yes. But do the 49ers want to extend the kind of contract that he is seeking? The answer is no.

The 49ers are hanging around, as the market for Thomas does not appear to be as robust as expected.

Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu agreed to terms with Washington and the Kansas City Chiefs, respectively, on deals that average a reported $14 million annually. (Collins agreed to a six-year deal, and Mathieu’s agreement is for three years.)

The Dallas Cowboys appear to be Thomas’ preferred destination, and they're also balking at the high price tag, too.

The 49ers have three safeties with starting experience: Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert and Marcell Harris. The belief is the 49ers would like to add to this position group. They remain interested in bringing back Jimmie Ward on a one-year deal. If the price is right, Thomas will be in the mix, too.

Cornerback

This is a key season for Richard Sherman, who did not look like his old self last season as he returned from a torn Achilles. But Sherman never was tested because of the 49ers' issues on the other side.

The 49ers invested third-round draft picks in back-to-back seasons on Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore. The 49ers selected them to be starters, sooner than later.

At this stage, each of the free-agent cornerbacks will be seeking starter’s money. There are some options that could fit the 49ers, such as Pierre Desir, Darqueze Dennard and Bradley Roby.

However, none of those players would immediately step in as starters over Witherspoon and Moore. There would have to be competition, and that would have to be reflected in the kind of contract the 49ers would be willing to offer.

Wide receiver

The 49ers did not figure to find a starting receiver in free agency. Now, if Odell Beckham were available for a reasonable price from the New York Giants, the 49ers certainly would be interested. But that's another story.

Golden Tate is the top available wide receiver. He caught 74 passes for 795 yards and four touchdowns while splitting time with the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles last year. After that, there’s really nobody who stands out as a player who would walk into a starting role ahead of Kendrick Bourne and Marquise Goodwin.

Bourne, in just his second NFL season, caught 42 passes for 487 yards and four TDs to lead all 49ers wideouts. Goodwin has averaged 17.2 yards per reception in his two seasons. Ideally, the 49ers would like to use Goodwin in a more specialized role -- similar to how Kyle Shanahan deployed Taylor Gabriel during their time together in Atlanta.

The one free-agent receiver who probably fit Shanahan’s scheme better than anyone else was Adam Humphries, but the 49ers already have promising slot receivers Trent Taylor and Richie James. Humphries agreed to terms with the Tennessee Titans, and the 49ers are not believed to have been in serious pursuit.

Running back

There’s been some reports of the 49ers being in the mix for Le’Veon Bell. We’re not buying it at all. Yes, he would be a significant threat as a runner and receiver. But he refused to play for $14 million last season, so that’s an indication of what kind of money he would be seeking.

Moreover, Shanahan's teams never have invested franchise-type of money in a running back. The 49ers can be expected to add another running back to the competition at some point in the offseason. If they sign or draft a running back, that player likely would compete with Matt Breida for the right to suit up for games.

[RELATED: 49ers legend Gore heading to Bills for 15th season]

Raheem Mostert will be in uniform as the No. 3 running back for every game he’s available due to his special-teams contributions. Jerick McKinnon, whom the 49ers signed a year ago for his dual-threat ability, is on pace to assume his intended role as he rehabs from a torn ACL. Breida made the most of his opportunities last season, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in 13 starts while battling an ankle injury for most of the year.