NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2020 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from Bill Barnwell. The new league year begins March 18 at 4 p.m. ET, which means free-agent signings can be made official after that. The first round of the 2020 NFL draft begins April 23.
Jimmie Ward, safety
What it means: With one major exception -- defensive tackle DeForest Buckner -- the 49ers have every one of their 2019 defensive starters under contract and in the fold for 2020. That's no small thing for a defense that was among the league's best last season and carried much of the freight for the NFC champions. In Ward, the Niners keep a player that coach Kyle Shanahan and coordinator Robert Saleh are quite fond of and who they view as integral in their scheme. Ward turns 29 in July but his best football is likely ahead of him if he can stay healthy.
What's the risk: The risk with Ward is a matter of health. Put simply, can Ward stay on the field? Talent has never been a question when it comes to Ward but durability has. He's missed at least three games in each of the past four seasons and has only played all 16 regular season games once in his six-year career (2015). Ward's fearless playing style has led to some bad luck but he played the final 13 regular-season and three postseason games last year without incident. The Niners are hoping that's a harbinger of things to come rather than a one-off.
Arik Armstead, defensive end
The 49ers have agreed to a five-year extension with Armstead.
What it means: It's no secret the premium the Niners put on having a dominant defensive line, an emphasis that played a major role in their run to Super Bowl LIV. The Niners were the only team in the league with four or more players with at least 6.5 sacks a year ago, with Armstead leading the way with 10. Having Armstead in the fold combined with the impending trade of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner means the Niners will bring back five of their top six defensive linemen from last season, a group that includes four former first-round picks.
What's the risk: The 2019 season was easily Armstead's best and most productive after an up-and-down first four seasons. His 10 sacks in 2019 were more than he had in his first four seasons combined. Additionally, Armstead has had an injury history, playing in 14 total games in 2016 and 2017. That all raises the question of whether Armstead is hitting his stride in a defensive scheme that best suits him or if last season was an aberration? Given the money involved, clearly both sides are hoping for the former.
Ben Garland, C
The 49ers re-signed Garland to a one-year deal.
What it means: The 49ers found themselves repeatedly leaning on their offensive line depth in 2019 and, more often than not, that group was up to the challenge. Garland was crucial, stepping in at center for an injured Weston Richburg at the end of the season and through the postseason. Garland did well in that role and is capable of playing guard, making his return a priority. With the new CBA allowing teams to keep an extra lineman active on game days, the 49ers have ensured that they like their depth by keeping Garland.
What's the risk: There's not much risk here, given that it's just a one-year deal worth $2.25 million. Garland has been productive, versatile and durable throughout his career and is a consummate professional. The only potential "risk" is that Garland's return could prevent a younger player with more long-term upside from getting reps but the Niners can and will play the best players regardless of experience. This is a solid move to keep important depth in place.
Ronald Blair III, DE
The 49ers are re-signing Blair to a one-year deal.
What it means: After retaining Armstead and trading tackle Buckner on Monday, the need for the Niners to retain some of their key depth on the defensive line only increased. Keeping Blair was a big part of that, even if re-signing him isn't a splashy kind of move that will draw headlines. But Blair was a key rotational piece before his ACL tear last year. He has the versatility to play inside and out and is a favorite of coordinator Robert Saleh for his intelligence and work ethic. With Buckner out of the equation, Blair should have even more opportunities in 2020.
What's the risk: Blair is coming off a torn right ACL suffered in mid-November of last season, which means that his status for the start of training camp and the season remains to be seen. The good news is he recently posted video of himself running again and seems to be on his way to a recovery. Given that this is just a one-year deal, there's not much monetary risk, but if Blair can't get back to full strength, the Niners defensive line depth will take a significant hit.
Tom Compton, G
The 49ers agreed to a one-year contract with former Jets guard Tom Compton, a source told ESPN's Nick Wagoner.
What it means: The 49ers are making a change at right guard. In conjunction with adding Compton, they also released Mike Person, who started most of last season at right guard. Person had a neck injury that slowed him toward the end of the year and has battled various issues through his time with the team. Compton has been in the league since 2012 and has familiarity with Kyle Shanahan from their time together in Washington and Atlanta. The interior of the line struggled in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl and is an obvious area to upgrade. Daniel Brunskill likely will get a shot at this job, too, but San Francisco obviously is hoping to improve at this spot one way or another.
What's the risk: Compton has 35 starts over eight seasons with five teams but has never solidified a starting spot for a long period of time. Compton is likely to provide versatile depth but isn't necessarily a lock to start for the Niners. That means San Francisco still needs to add help on the inside to compete with Brunskill and Compton. Compton also is coming off a calf injury that landed him on injured reserve at the end of last season.
Kerry Hyder, DE
Former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Kerry Hyder will join the 49ers on a one-year deal.
What it means: With defensive tackle DeForest Buckner gone, the Niners are going to have to replace him by committee, which means looking for as much depth as possible. Hyder, like Ronald Blair III, can play on the edge and bump inside on pass-rushing downs. Hyder only has 10 career sacks since entering the league in 2014, but eight of those came in 2016 when he played for the Detroit Lions under defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Kocurek now leads the Niners line and presumably will aim to get Hyder back to similar levels of production in San Francisco.
What's the risk: There's not much risk involved here given that it's just a one-year deal. Although terms aren't yet known, it's unlikely Hyder's deal will come with much in the way of guaranteed money. The larger concern is that the 49ers defensive line doesn't have enough talent to replace Buckner. If Hyder can't play even a small part in doing that, they'll need to look elsewhere to help pick up some of that slack.
Joe Walker, linebacker
What it means: The 49ers want to create some competition on special teams and at backup linebacker. With Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, the Niners have their three primary linebackers, but there's room for roster battles beyond that trio. After electing not to extend a restricted free-agent tender offer to linebacker Elijah Lee, the Niners targeted Walker to add to the depth chart. Walker's path to a roster spot is through special teams, though he also brings experience playing defense, having posted 65 tackles while starting 11 games for the Cardinals last season.
What's the risk: The 49ers have a solid linebacker corps and Walker should offer some competition for the likes of Mark Nzeocha and Azeez Al-Shaair. However, if he's forced into action on defense, Walker struggled with missed tackles, so the Niners need to continue to seek options to compete for depth.
Travis Benjamin, wide receiver
What it means: The 49ers are adding competition at receiver and returner and aren't done yet. With little cap space left and Phillip Dorsett headed to Seattle (the Niners pursued Dorsett, also), the 49ers are seeking bargains who could potentially contribute and create competition down the depth chart. Benjamin brings the speed the Niners covet and had his best NFL season under Kyle Shanahan when they were together in Cleveland in 2015. That was a long time ago, but if Benjamin can re-discover that form and bring production as a returner, he has a chance to win a roster spot and carve out a role.
What's the risk: Like many of their recent signings, this is a low-cost, one-year deal with little risk attached. Benjamin isn't being counted on to provide big numbers, so anything they get out of him will be a bonus. Benjamin has struggled with drops in his career and is also coming off a season in which he played just five games because of a quad injury. Regardless, this won't preclude the Niners from adding more talent at wideout, likely early in the draft.