New scheme could lead to new look for 49ers cornerbacks

The 49ers could consider moving Jimmie Ward from corner to safety to play an Earl Thomas role. Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Free agency begins March 9, and teams can begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 7. We'll count down to that period with a position-by-position look at what the San Francisco 49ers have in place, who is set to hit the market, what the 49ers might need and who might fit the bill.

Position: Cornerback

Under contract: Tramaine Brock, Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson, K'Waun Williams, Keith Reaser, Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson, JaCorey Shepherd, Prince Charles Iworah.

Pending free agents: Chris Davis (restricted).

What’s needed: The first order of business for the 49ers is determining whether Ward will remain at corner or if they would prefer to move him to free safety, where he can play the Earl Thomas-type role in new coordinator Robert Saleh's defense. Ward is the only player on the roster with the skill set to handle that job, but he has also steadily improved as a corner and was valuable when healthy in 2016 because he could play in the slot and outside. Niners general manager John Lynch has indicated Ward will get a look at free safety this offseason.

Overall, the Niners have a solid group in place here, but this is a position that could evolve, in large part because of the change in defensive scheme. Saleh's defense is rooted in the principles of Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks. That system values long-limbed, physical corners capable of playing press coverage and handling zones outside the hashes. The Niners seem to have some corners who fit that profile, such as Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Brock and Johnson. Redmond is more of an unknown after he missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury, though he projects as an option in the slot.

This is one of the few positions on the roster where the 49ers seem to have some depth, so diving into free agency or the draft for league average caliber players wouldn't do much good. But if the Niners do want to address cornerback, finding a No. 1 type of corner who fits their physical profile is possible in this year's class. As an added bonus, signing a top corner would allow the Niners to commit to moving Ward to free safety and potentially fill two spots with one move.

Houston's A.J. Bouye would be particularly intriguing as an emerging star who is only 25 and went to the Pro Bowl last season. It's a small sample size, but Bouye is 6-foot, 192 pounds and would be a perfect fit in the Niners' scheme. He won't come cheap, though, and the Niners might be more inclined to invest at positions of greater need. The same could be said of other top corners scheduled to hit the market such as New England's Logan Ryan and Buffalo's Stephon Gilmore. The Los Angeles Rams' Trumaine Johnson received the franchise tag for the second year in a row, making it unlikely the Niners would make a run at him.

Possible fits: Malcolm Butler (New England/restricted), A.J. Bouye (Houston), Logan Ryan (New England), Stephon Gilmore (Buffalo), Trumaine Johnson (Los Angeles Rams/franchise tag).