SANTA CLARA -- In the game of matchups, the first day of the new league year was not kind to the 49ers.
Patrick Willis, the 49ers’ best option for covering athletic tight ends, announced his retirement on Tuesday. An hour later, the Seattle Seahawks acquired 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham in a trade with the New Orleans Saints.
Is there anything a team can do to counter that kind of move from an intra-division rival?
“Not unless you can find a 6-6 safety,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke quipped. “If you can find one of those, I’ll take him.”
The 49ers have seen plenty of Graham over the past four seasons. And they’re set to face him at least twice a year for as long as Graham remains with the Seahawks.
Graham caught 10 passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns in the 49ers’ 27-24 overtime victory against the Saints last season. In the previous two seasons with Willis mostly in coverage, Graham caught a combined 10 passes for just 74 yards and no touchdowns.
The Seahawks acquired Graham, 28, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and the Saints’ fourth-round draft pick for center Max Unger and the Seahawks’ first-round pick, No. 31 overall.
“We’ve seen him a lot,” Baalke said of Graham. “He’s a heck of a talent. But to get a heck of a talent, they had to give up some stuff, too. They gave up a center (Unger) that we personally didn’t like playing against a lot. He was an awfully good football player. But they gained an awfully good football player.”
The Seahawks swept the season series against the 49ers last season. The 49ers were 2-4 inside the NFC West and finished with an 8-8 record.
“In order to get to the next step, you got to either win your division or play very well within your division,” Baalke said. “Very seldom do you play poorly in your own division and make the playoffs. So got to try to win your own division and put a team together that can win your division.
“So you’re always looking at matchups. This is a matchup game now. So they made a move. If you’re playing chess, they just moved their rook. Right? Now we got to make a move. What move will that be? I don’t know.”
The 49ers’ best current options to contend with Graham in coverage are safeties Eric Reid and Antoine, as well as using some combination of linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland.