On the first day of free agency, the San Francisco 49ers didn’t announce — or even make — a big splash, but they did make moves to shore up their defensive backfield and add to the running back room. At least, in theory.
San Francisco reportedly re-signed free agent safety Jimmie Ward, took a visit from former first-round corner Jason Verrett and reportedly signed running back Tevin Coleman to a two-year deal.
Having seen eight defensive backs go down with injury last season — including Ward — San Francisco not only bolstered a position of need, and also added competition to a running back group that was similarly decimated by injury.
For the fourth time in five years, Ward landed on the injured list this past season, but that didn’t stop San Francisco from deciding to bring him back on a one-year, $5 million deal according to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network. Rapoport also reported that San Francisco hosted a visit from another oft-injured defensive back: Northern California native Verrett.
Verrett, a Fairfield Native, Santa Rosa College graduate and Texas Christian product, is a former first-round pick, but has only played in 25 games over four seasons for the Chargers. The visit to the 49ers reportedly also includes a very-important physical. In 2014, he tore his labrum in three places, tore his rotator cuff and injured his hamstring. In 2015, he played 14 games and was named as a Pro Bowl replacement for Darrelle Revis; despite missing two games with a foot injury, he made 47 combined tackles and picked off three passes. In 2016, he partially tore his ACL, played through it, and then fully tore it, limiting him to four games. In 2017, he injured his knee and played in just one game, and in July of 2018, he tire his ACL on the first day of training camp.
Ward was one of eight 49ers defensive backs to go down with injury at some point last season, and while he has a spotty injury history, he still has two years’ worth of experience in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s system.
At the end of the season, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh raved about Ward’s versatility, after he moved from corner to safety during the season. Saleh, head coach Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have repeatedly sung his praises.
“Honestly, with Jimmie, I see him as a free, as a corner,” Saleh said. “Ideally, it’s one position and let him roll. He was playing really well at free safety. Again, it goes back to the end of the year, going through and evaluating and just to make sure that we pinpoint exactly what he was truly excelling at and exactly what the defense was really excelling at. He was. He was doing a really, really nice job back there at free safety. So, it’s something that we’re going to have to evaluate at the end of the year.”
As for the addition of Coleman, his deal, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, is for $10 million. A big-play threat who played for Shanahan in 2015 with the Atlanta Falcons, Coleman averaged a career-best 4.8 yards per carry while starting 14 of 16 games for the Falcons this past season, finishing with 800 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Coleman also caught 32 passes for 276 yards and five touchdowns.
Both of Coleman’s touchdown totals — rushing and receiving — would have led the 49ers this past season.
Shanahan has frequently expressed his desire to create competition at every position, and the addition of Coleman certainly does that, joining a group that includes Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Alfred Morris.
Coleman worked well in tandem with Devonta Freeman before he underwent season-ending groin surgery, but there are questions about whether he can be a full-time back. He uses his strength to get outside and beat defenders up field, but he doesn’t have Freeman’s vision and elusiveness.
Jerick McKinnon, the former Minnesota Vikings running back San Francisco brought in before last season on a big-money deal to be the starter, has no guaranteed money remaining on his contract — his base salary of $3.75 million becomes guaranteed April 1 — but Coleman provides insurance should McKinnon’s comeback from an ACL injury in a non-contact drill not go as smoothly as hoped.
McKinnon, though, wasn’t the only back to go down last season, as Raheem Mostert broke his right arm on Nov. 1 against the Oakland Raiders.