Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports


Saleh, Jets Could Thwart 49ers’ Plans to Re-Sign Secondary

Levin T. Black
Jan 16, 2021 at 1:05 PM


The San Francisco 49ers don't have a secondary at this time. That's not an exaggeration. As of right now, the only player from the secondary to play significant minutes who is not a pending free agent is free safety Jimmie Ward. Here's a list of the players from the secondary who played at least 100 snaps in 2020 but would have to get new contracts if they were to play for the 49ers again: Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, Jaquiski Tartt, K'Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley, Akhello Witherspoon, Marcell Harris, Dontae Johnson, Jamar Taylor.

Only one of these is not an unrestricted free agent. Moseley is an exclusive restricted free agent, meaning the 49ers will be able to re-sign him if they choose to. As long as the 49ers offer him a league minimum contract, Moseley is restricted from talking to other teams. It's safe to say he will be brought back so we can eliminate him from the topic at hand.

That topic is the 49ers need to sign their secondary, but with the hiring of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh by the New York Jets, the 49ers are likely to face competition from a familiar face. Saleh will no doubt want to sign some of the players listed above. They know Saleh's system and Saleh knows he can succeed with them, considering the 49ers have had a top-five secondary each of the past two seasons.

Saleh will have one key advantage over the 49ers in any bidding war. The Jets are projected to have the third most cap space in the league and will be able to outbid the 49ers if they want the player enough. Who could the Jets set their sights on? Let's take a look at every player individually.

Richard Sherman


We'll start with the biggest name in the bunch. Sherman has spent the past three seasons with the 49ers, earning an All-Pro nod in 2019. Things went downhill sharply in 2020 however. Sherman only played in five games due to injury and looked like a guy trying to go the wrong way on an escalator. His lack of speed was always his biggest knock but the brakes seemed stuck on in 2020. It is quite possible the wheels have come off and Sherman is but a shell of his younger self.

Sherman could have been heavily hampered by those injuries as well. A rebound could be coming in 2021, but age is very much a factor when evaluating how likely that is. Sherman will be 33 in March. His ability to keep up with wide receivers may be gone for good.

Based on his quotes towards the end of the season, the 49ers won't be trying to bring him back so if Saleh and the Jets want him, they won't be bidding against his former team. Would Saleh be interested? I believe so, assuming Sherman isn't trying to get another big payday.

Sherman's leadership and mentoring prowess will be worthwhile as Saleh attempts to implement his system and win over a locker room in New York. A two-year, league minimum but with heavy incentives type of contract seems plausible. If he's washed up and doesn't play much, the leadership is worth the cheap price. If he rebounds and can still play like a starter, Sherman gets paid like one.

Jaquiski Tartt


Having played six seasons in San Francisco, Tartt is the longest-tenured player on the list. His time with the 49ers has been up and down. He's flashed greatness in spurts but never for a full season and has missed an average of seven games each year for the past four seasons.

Tartt should get some interest around the league but no one is offering him a big contract, nor much in the way of guarantees. Tartt seems like the most likely player on the list to sign with the Jets. The price won't be high, he's still in his 20s, has the capability to play at a high level, and the Jets are in need of a strong safety after trading Jamal Adams to the Seattle Seahawks last year and his replacement, Marcus Maye, is an unrestricted free agent.

Dontae Johnson and Jamar Taylor


These two are lumped together because the situation is the same for both of them. Due to injuries in the secondary, both played far more in 2020 than the 49ers had planned going into the season. Neither did well enough to look like a must-sign player but both showed they could provide quality depth at a position that needs a lot of depth.

There is very little to go on in terms of knowing how likely they are to return to the 49ers or be brought to the Jets at Saleh's request. Taylor could serve as a cheap option in the slot pending what happens with this next player.

K'Waun Williams


The slot corner role has exploded in importance in recent seasons. This is particularly true in the 49ers' Saleh-coached defense that played predominantly in the three cornerback nickel formation. Williams is so good in the slot that he is often talked about as the best in the league in the role.

The 49ers will be running a similar, if not identical, defensive system in 2021 with DeMeco Ryans being promoted to the role of defensive coordinator. With both teams running a system that features the slot corner so heavily, Williams is the player most likely to see a bidding war ensue. Both teams will be interested and both teams will likely place a high level of importance on getting Williams to sign with them.

How much will he get? Evaluating that is difficult because the slot corner's importance has only recently increased significantly. There's not really a precedence to go off of. It certainly won't be anywhere near what the top paid cornerbacks have gotten but it could approach $8-10 million a year.

As was mentioned, the Jets have far more cap room so if Saleh deems Williams important enough, and Jets GM Joe Douglas agrees, Williams will be wearing green next year.

Marcell Harris


A tremendous athlete who has continued to make mental mistakes and take horrendous angles leading to big plays, Harris is a quandary of sorts. He has great potential but is also a three-year vet still making rookie mistakes. He could be a depth safety signed for the minimum for either team, or he could receive no interest from either.

Harris will surely get a non-guaranteed shot to make a roster next year. Time will tell whether Saleh or the 49ers still believe in the potential or if Harris' opportunity comes elsewhere.

Akhello Witherspoon


The potential for both teams to get into a low key bidding war for Witherspoon is underrated. The prototypical cornerback for the defensive system both teams will use, Witherspoon has had a wildly inconsistent four-year career so far. He has played like a true lockdown corner in four or five game stretches multiple times but has also played so poorly that he lost his starting spot multiple times.

One of the times he got benched was in 2020. He didn't simply become a backup. He found himself at the bottom of the depth chart. In half of the games he was healthy for in 2020, he saw fewer than five snaps on defense. He became a special teams-exclusive player at one point.

But then came the end of the season. Due to injuries, Witherspoon got a chance to start again. He played all but one defensive snap in the 49ers' final three games and he played as well as he ever had during that stretch.

How well? He finished the season with Pro Football Focus' sixth-highest grade among all cornerbacks. Yes, those ratings should be taken with a grain of salt but having such a high rating means Witherspoon played quite well when given the chance.

He's not going to command much money on the open market but he seems like a great option for the Jets to throw a little extra into an offer to ensure he signs with them. They could get a starting-level cornerback, who knows the system, for well below starting money.

Jason Verrett


The best was indeed saved for last. Verrett didn't make the Pro Bowl but he certainly was deserving. Finally healthy, he was a dominant player for the 49ers in 2020. He shutdown DK Metcalf in Week 17 to close the season, is the No. 9 graded cornerback by PFF, and is due for the biggest contract of any player discussed in this article.

Verrett's free agency is perhaps the most intriguing one to watch in the entire NFL this offseason. Last season was both an outlier kind of year for Verrett and confirmation of the level he is capable of playing at.

Verrett is one of the best cornerbacks in the league when healthy. He made a Pro Bowl in 2015 and played like one again in 2020. In between those two years, he became the most injury-riddled player in the league. He played six total games in four seasons prior to last season, with four of the six coming in 2016.

Verrett will likely get around a $10 million average annual salary (AAV) in his new deal. There's an outside chance he could get significantly more. A true lockdown cornerback hitting the market is a commodity a lot of teams will likely be interested in. It's entirely possible a team is willing to gamble on his health and offer a deal just under the top pay for his position.

Guarantees will likely be lower due to his health but some team could push his AAV north of $15 million. If that happens, the 49ers would have to bow out. It's not out of the question the Jets emerge as that team considering their cap space.

The 49ers can't afford to pay him that much with the Warner extension and likely Trent Williams re-signing. The 49ers' cap situation isn't as dire as some make it out to be but they can't pay that kind of money to a very injury prone player. The 49ers have enough of those to go around already.

Who ends up back with the 49ers will factor heavily into what the team looks to do in the draft. If they strike out, don't be surprised if they use that top pick to get a cornerback.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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