Editor's note: Coach Chip Kelly takes over at a time in which the 49ers are coming off a 5-11 season with a lot of decisions to make during the offseason. Here is the first installment of a five-part series on the organization’s top offseason priorities.
The 49ers' third-down defense ranked in the middle of the pack in the NFL with the opponents converting 39 percent of their opportunities.
Because of the pace of play expected from the 49ers’ offense, it is imperative that new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s defense excels in these situations. Otherwise, the 49ers’ defense will be on the field far more than any other team in the NFL.
The 49ers must take a hard look at their defensive backs to determine how to proceed.
The team has a lot of good, young cornerbacks. But they enter the offseason without two clear-cut starters. Tramaine Brock started 15 games. He tied for the team-lead with three interceptions and led the team with 11 passes broken up. Due a little more than $3 million in pay this season, Brock would appear to be a leading candidate to return as a starter.
But the other side is completely up in the air. Kenneth Acker started most of the season before getting a demotion in late-December. Dontae Johnson and Marcus Cromartie generally played well. Keith Reaser, another year removed from ACL surgery, was active for 13 games but saw limited time on defense.
The 49ers have the cash to go out and sign an unrestricted free agent, such as Sean Smith (Kansas City), Prince Amukamara (N.Y. Giants), Trumaine Johnson or Janoris Jenkins (both Los Angeles).
Jimmie Ward, the team's top pick in 2014, got better and better as the season progressed as the nickel back. That spot appears to be in solid hands. Likewise, the safety positions look to be strong. Eric Reid was the starter from Day 1. Jaquiski Tartt started eight games after veteran Antoine Bethea sustained a season-ending torn pectoral muscle. Bethea remains under contract. Tartt had his ups and downs as a rookie. The 49ers must determine whether he's ready to take over as a starter or whether he's best-suited at this stage for a specialized role.
With an expected 12 draft picks, the 49ers have the ability to add a quality player in the draft. Of course, free agency gets going seven weeks before the draft, so they might already have the pieces to their secondary in place by then.