Wanted: Cornerback help for the San Francisco 49ers.
While this group helped bottle the big receptions up until the NFC championship game loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the cornerback unit still dealt with season-ending injuries (Jason Verrett), ailments that sidelined them toward the tail end of the year (Emmanuel Moseley) and a rotation featuring 30-year-olds and first time NFL players.
While this pass defense ended the regular season as a top 10 unit (sixth versus the pass), the ‘Niners are still facing a critical offseason period involving who to keep and who to add.
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One longtime columnist has already called on the 49ers to keep one veteran member of their corner unit, mentioned in this Heavy on 49ers story. However, one NFL analyst believes the 49ers should pursue one veteran who delivered an “elite season” and is nearing the end of his one-year, $2.5 million deal.
Who the 49ers Should Pursue
In a recent episode of Heavy’s I’m Just Saying hosted by Brian Mazique, Heavy on NFL Jets writer Paul “Boy Green” Esden called on the ‘Niners to look into adding this cornerback: Casey Hayward.
The Las Vegas Raiders cornerback is an intriguing name for this upcoming 2022 free agent cycle beginning on March 16. The 32-year-old is not only a two-time Pro Bowler, but he continuously shows that he can last a full season — starting in every NFL game in four of his last five seasons according to Pro Football Reference.
But staying intact and as injury-free as possible shouldn’t be the only thing that convinces the 49ers to add Hayward.
“Let’s keep a west coast guy on the west coast. I like Casey Hayward Jr. here to the 49ers,” Esden said. “This man is coming off of an absolutely elite season and a lot of people thought he was done as a Los Angeles Chargers cap casualty in 2020, but he bounced back in a major way. This man bet on himself with a one-year prove-it deal with the Las Vegas Raiders and it paid off.”
How did Hayward bounce back? By providing the blanket coverage the Raiders sorely needed after a disastrous 2020 season.
“A 75 coverage grade from PFF and he thrives in zone coverage, I still think he has a lot of years left in the league. This is a San Francisco roster that is obviously ready to win right now and he fits that mold. He would be a perfect fit for this team,” Esden concluded.
Esden has a point about demographics: Hayward has spent the 2016 to 2021 season in the Pacific Time zone. The former Vanderbilt standout likely has gotten used to that time adjustment. He also delivered his best season in 2016 — his seven interception campaign — along the California coastline in San Diego, which led to his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Here’s another dilemma facing Hayward’s Silver and Black future: His defensive coordinator just left for the Indianapolis Colts and, per this Heavy on Raiders story, Hayward could be replaced with another Pro Bowler.
But in looking closely at what Hayward could walk into in the Bay Area, the pairing makes absolute sense.
How Hayward Could Fit
San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans ran a lot of Cover 3 concepts toward the end of the season during the 49ers’ turnaround. His defense called for both cornerbacks to help split the deep part of the field into thirds.
It just so happens Hayward played in a similar defense that called for that type of coverage. Former Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is a Cover 3 guy even during the time he coached Hayward with the Chargers. Here’s one example against Heyward’s former team that shows the corner taking the deep end of his side:
But it isn’t just the coverages Ryans runs that could intrigue Hayward. With the Raiders, Hayward played with a defensive line unit that produced 33.5 of the team’s 35 sacks, with defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby combining for 18 from their defensive end spots. But with the 49ers, S.F snatched 48 under Ryans — with three 49er players in Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and former Raider Arden Key getting between 6.0 to 15.5 sacks.
Per overthecap.com, the 49ers could have $10,763,300 in effective cap space should the team be able to restructure some deals. With Hayward’s age and value, there should be enough room for the ‘Niners to lure him in if they decide to pursue the veteran corner.