49ers Free Agency Preview: Bolstering the Defense is a Priority

NFL free agency officially starts on March 16th. Coming off their second NFC championship appearance in three years, and will be looking to finally get over the top. To do so, they’ll need to make some moves in free agency, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. The 2021 49ers had a top-tier defense, but there was still certainly room for improvement. Let us take a look at a couple of options the team could pursue in the coming days and weeks.

JC Jackson CB

Patriots cornerback JC Jackson has turned into one of the premier CBs in the game. Jackson has 17 interceptions over the last two years, most in the NFL. This past season was Jackson’s best so far. His completion percentage when targeted was just 51% which ranked 5th best in the league among CBs with 300 or more coverage snaps. Additionally opposing QBs had a passer rating of just 47.5 when targeting Jackson last year, 3rd lowest in the NFL. He is an absolutely elite CB and will be paid like one. This is the obstacle for the 49ers. At the current moment, we are not quite sure how the cap space situation will shake out for the 49ers. At the moment of writing this, they are about $9Million over the salary cap and will need to be under it by the start of the league year on the 16th. There are plenty of ways that the team could create cap space, but with looming contracts for Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa, will the team be willing to commit big money to any free agent? If they are Jackson would fit the bill. The team is looking for another CB to play across from Emmanuel Mosley, and there is no better option on the market than Jackson.

Chandler Jones EDGE

Every year that Chandler Jones has been healthy, he has been an elite pass rusher. He has gone over the 10 sack mark 7 times in his career and this last year had 10.5 sacks for the Arizona Cardinals. While maybe not the same dominant player he was several years ago, Jones is still one of the better pass rushers in the game. PFF gave him a pass-rush game of 87.7 which ranked 8th among edge rushers with 300 or more pass rush stats. The 49ers are looking for another high-caliber pass rusher to pair with Nick Bosa. Dee Ford was supposed to be that guy, but injuries have really derailed his time with the 49ers. Jones would fill that role perfectly. Once again, the cap situation could make this unfeasible, but if the numbers work out, Jones would be an incredible addition to the 49ers’ pass rush.

Dante Fowler Jr. EDGE

Fowler presents as a good buy-low candidate for the 49ers. The past two seasons with the Falcons were a disappointment for Fowler. He only had 9 sacks over that span after having 15 in 2019 with the Rams. Bringing Fowler in on a one-year deal could pay huge dividends for the 49ers. Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek is absolutely incredible at his job and has done well with getting the best out of his players over the years. We saw Kerry Hyder come to the 49ers for a year, have success and then get a payday the following offseason. The same is poised to happen with Arden Key this offseason. Fowler would provide needed depth at edge rusher for the 49ers and would set himself up with an opportunity to rejuvenate his career.

Casey Hayward Jr CB

At the age of 32, two-time all-pro Casey Hayward still has plenty left in the tank. Hayward is coming off of a very productive year with the Las Vegas Raiders. He allowed just 388 yards in coverage this last year and opposing QBs completed just 54.5% of passes when targeting him. Although he is primarily an outside corner now, if need be he could potentially slide inside and play the nickel as he has done that in the past. Hayward would also provide a great veteran presence to a defensive back room that is on the younger side. In terms of the financials, the 49ers should be able to make a Hayward deal work. His age will prevent any deal from being a long term and the team should be able to sign him on a one or two-year deal if both sides are interested.

Uchenna Nwosu EDGE

This is another move that I think would fall under the value signing for the 49ers. Nwosu is an athletic edge rusher who was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft by the Chargers. Nwosu is coming off a year in which he had 5 sacks for the chargers, and all though he isn’t a true game-changer like the aforementioned Chandler Jones, Nwosu would be a great depth signing for the team. Pairing him with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek could unlock all that potential that is there with Nwosu and could turn this value move into one of the best signings of the offseason.

Bobby Wagner LB

This would be more of a luxury move than anything else. Bobby Wagner is one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. After an unceremonious exit from Seattle, Wagner could be looking to exact revenge on his former employer by signing with a division rival, much in the way Richard Sherman did several years ago. The 49ers linebacker group is already strong, but it is always tough to turn down a player of Wagner’s caliber if he is interested. Signing Wagner would give the 49ers the option to trade linebacker Dre Greenlaw who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. I would consider this one a long shot, but it would be a nice move to see happen.

DJ Jones/Jaquiski Tartt IDL/S

I’m bundling these two together because they fall under the same category to me. Jones and Tartt were both integral parts to the 49ers’ defense last season. Both are hitting the open market, and it seems somewhat unlikely that both of them will return to the team. However, I still think it would be wise for the 49ers to try and bring them back, especially if their markets turn out to not be as robust as many think they will be. This is what essentially happened to Tartt last offseason. He entered free agency but wound up signing a one-year cheap deal with the 49ers after not finding any larger contracts elsewhere. If the 49ers are able to retain Jones or Tartt, they should jump at that opportunity.

Carlton Davis CB

Another talented CB who the 49ers would have to shell out some cash for. Davis put together a very solid season last year allowing just 346 yards and a 54.8% completion percentage when targeted. At just 25, Davis is someone who would give the 49ers a high caliber corner now while also still having room to grow and develop. Once again, the financial situation could be one that forces them to pass on Davis as he should have a robust marketwith lots of competition for his services. Davis would instantly be a starter for the 49ers’ defense and provide some much-needed stability at the cornerback position.

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