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Scheme change could alter how 49ers value free safety

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The free-agent market is scheduled to open March 9 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 7. We'll count down to that with a position-by-position look at what the San Francisco 49ers have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

Position: Safety

Under contract: Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, Jaquiski Tartt, Marcus Ball.

Pending free agents: Marcus Cromartie (restricted).

What’s needed: When former general manager Trent Baalke was running the show, this was a position the Niners clearly valued. They spent premium picks on Reid and Tartt, signed Bethea and drafted hybrid cornerback/safety Jimmie Ward in the first round. Those picks and signings have yielded mixed results, but the Niners aren't lacking in terms of overall talent at this spot.

However, with a change in scheme to new coordinator Robert Saleh's 4-3 defense, there could be a renewed focus on the secondary, particularly at free safety. Saleh forged his defensive philosophy under Pete Carroll with the Seattle Seahawks, a philosophy that puts a premium on a free safety who can roam the back end in single-high looks and erase any mistakes made in front of him. Of course, that was easier to do in Seattle with the presence of Earl Thomas, perhaps the most dominant free safety in the league.

Seattle's other safety, usually Kam Chancellor when healthy, is often allowed to play closer to the line of scrimmage where he can make a difference against the run while also helping in coverage against tight ends.

As new coach Kyle Shanahan and staff evaluate their current roster, they will see players like Reid, Tartt and Bethea who would seem more suited to filling the Chancellor position than the Thomas role. Of course, the 49ers could adjust their scheme according to what's in place or even consider moving Ward back to a free safety job similar to what Thomas does for Seattle.

But if San Francisco decides to look at free safety options in free agency, there's only one who would qualify as a true difference maker -- and that's Kansas City's Eric Berry. Berry can play either safety spot and remains among the best in the league no matter what the Chiefs ask him to do. It's for that reason that Kansas City isn't likely to let Berry depart. The Chiefs again could use the franchise tag to keep Berry or sign him to a long-term deal.

Beyond Berry, there simply aren't many appealing options who a defensive coordinator would feel comfortable letting roam the back end alone on a regular basis. The more likely avenue if the Niners decide to put more of an emphasis on free safety is to look to the draft. The early read on this class lists talented safeties like Ohio State's Malik Hooker and LSU's Jamal Adams as top-tier prospects. Given the 49ers' recent investments in the position, such a pick probably wouldn't go over well, but if a top safety could have a Thomas-like effect on the Niners' defense, such trepidation would quickly vanish.

Possible fits: Eric Berry (Kansas City), Nate Allen (Oakland), Bradley McDougald (Tampa Bay), J.J Wilcox (Dallas).