In his March 6th column for Sports Illustrated, Albert Brier discussed some of the rumors and rumblings he’s heard about various players from around the NFL, including one that the San Francisco 49ers could be a potential suitor for the top safety on the free agent market, Jessie Bates III.
“I’d be surprised if Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates doesn’t cash in, and he may even scrape up against what Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James got last year,” Breer wrote. “In almost every case, you have to ask with free agents why their current teams are letting them go. In this one, it’s easy—the Bengals don’t want to lose him, but they have a lot of mouths to feed. So their loss could be the gain of a team such as Chicago, Cleveland or San Francisco. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is the one other safety who’ll be in eight figures, but not at Bates’s level.”
With just under $7 million in available funds under the salary cap, according to Over The Cap, San Francisco aren’t widely expected to be big money players in the free agency. Though the team has needs across the roster, especially with 22 unrestricted and three restricted free agents heading into the start of the 2023 NFL calendar year, it’s unrealistic to expect Jon Lynch to fill every hole with veteran performers. Still, if the team falls in love with a player like Bates, and they can structure a deal that includes very little money in 2023, and higher cap hits in 2024 and beyond, then there’s a chance San Francisco could land the ball-hawking safety yet.
Jessie Bates III is the Top DB on Fox’s free-agent top-50 rankings list
Measuring in at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Bates III finished off his fifth professional season with 71 combined tackles, eight passes defensed, and four interceptions. These numbers, when coupled with his first four years in Cincinnati, have made Bates III one of the most in-demand players in the 2023 free agent class and the top defensive back on the market, according to Carmen Vitali and Ralph Vacchiano of Fox Sports.
Bates has quietly been one of the best safeties in the league for three years running. He had a career-high four interceptions this season and has topped 100 tackles in three of his five seasons in the league. Spotrac has his market value listed at $14 million per year, which is a slight bump from his previous $12 million salary. Bates was already given the franchise tag last season. The Bengals won’t place it on him again, which means he should be highly sought-after by multiple teams.
As Vitali and Vacchiano pointed out, according to Spotrac, Bates III’s next contract has a market value of $14 million per season, which would make him the ninth-highest-paid safety in the NFL in terms of per-year salary. Jimmie Ward, the longest-tenured player on the 49ers, has a contract that’s set to expire at the end of the 2022 NFL calendar year too, but his next contract could come in at a much more team-friendly price tag
The San Francisco 49ers Could Save Money and Retain Jimmie Ward
If the 49ers want to sign a veteran safety to a long-term deal to play alongside 2022 Pro Bowler Talanoa Hufanga, but don’t want to surrender eight figures annually, the team has other options on the open market, including Ward, who is only projected to earn a contract worth $7.6 million annually, according to Spotrac.
Ward may not have as many interceptions as Bates III despite playing in the NFL for four more seasons and may be looking for a different role than what Lynch may offer. Still, if the market proves light for Ward, there’s a chance he could return to the Bay Area if the Niners miss out on Bates III.