San Francisco 49ers' NFL free-agent signings 2022: Charvarius Ward addresses big need

The 49ers and Charvarius Ward agreed to a three-year deal worth up to $42 million with $26.7 million guaranteed. AP Photo/Gregory Payan

NFL free agency is underway, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2022 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 16 at 4 p.m. ET, which means free-agent signings began to be made made official after that. The first round of the 2022 NFL draft begins April 28 on ESPN.

After struggling to start the 2021 season, the 49ers rallied and reached the NFC Championship Game behind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But all signs point to the Niners handing their quarterback reigns over to Trey Lance -- the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft -- this offseason and they have plenty of other pieces to add.

Here's a breakdown of every 2022 NFL free-agent signing by the San Francisco 49ers, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

Charvarius Ward, cornerback

The Niners and Ward agreed to a three-year deal worth up to $42 million with $26.7 million guaranteed, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

What it means: The Niners have finally addressed their biggest need -- cornerback -- in a significant way. In fact, this is the biggest financial outlay the Niners have made at the position since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch arrived in 2017. The Niners found themselves thin at the position repeatedly in 2021 after a season-ending injury to Jason Verrett in Week 1 and nagging issues for other corners throughout the season. Although rookie Ambry Thomas improved as the year went on, the sample wasn't big enough to just hand him a job. One solution could be to have Emmanuel Moseley start opposite Ward and slide into the slot in nickel situations with Thomas on the outside. Ward is only 25 and at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, is a good fit for what San Francisco likes from its cornerbacks.

What's the risk: Ward is considered an ascending player who has improved in each of his four NFL seasons. Still, this is a big investment in a player who only has four interceptions and one forced fumble in 56 career regular-season games. This 49ers regime also doesn't have a sparkling track record when it comes to signing big-ticket free agents. With a strong pass rush up front, Ward should have more opportunities to make plays on the ball.

Ray-Ray McCloud, receiver/returner

McCloud, who played with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, is getting a two-year deal worth up to $10.4 million, a source told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.

What it means: The 49ers have a dedicated returner. Finally. In using a random mix of options at both returner spots in 2021, the Niners ranked 20th in yards per punt return and 28th in yards per kick return. McCloud, meanwhile, led the NFL in combined return yards, including 9.66 yards per punt return, which was sixth in the league. McCloud also brings some value as a receiver, finishing with 39 catches for 277 yards last season. After special teamer Trent Sherfield departed for the Miami Dolphins, adding a core special teamer to the receiver room became a must in San Francisco.

What's the risk: This is a fairly sizable payday (at least at first glance) for a returner, which again speaks to how much the Niners wanted to get better in the return game. That means for the Niners to get full value here, McCloud will need to offer some help on offense. That's not out of the realm of possibility but it will be hard to get opportunities barring injuries to the likes of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings.

Hassan Ridgeway, defensive tackle

Ridgeway received a one-year, $2.5 million deal with $1 million guaranteed, a source told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.

What it means: After deciding not to give defensive tackle Kentavius Street a tender offer as a restricted free agent and losing starter D.J. Jones to the Denver Broncos, the Niners were in need of additional depth on the interior. That comes in Ridgeway, who has spent six year in the league with the Colts and Eagles. Ridgeway is likely to step into a role as a rotational tackle alongside the likes of Kevin Givens and Maurice Hurst. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Ridgeway has 9.5 sacks in 65 career games but given the Niners' success getting the most out of defensive linemen, don't be surprised if he offers a bit more than his usual statistical output in San Francisco.

What's the risk: Since Ridgeway isn't being asked to step in as a starter -- the Niners will almost certainly go with Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw inside -- there's not much risk on such a low-cost deal. The real question here is whether the combination of Kinlaw (who is coming off knee surgery) and Ridgeway, Hurst and Givens will adequately step in for Jones, who was one of the best run stoppers in the NFL in 2021. Ridgeway also comes with a few injury question marks, having landed on injured reserve in 2019 and 2020 with ankle and biceps injuries, respectively.

Oren Burks, linebacker

Burks has agreed to a two year deal worth up to $5 million, a source told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.

What it means: The 49ers are pretty well set at linebacker when it comes to their starting group but Burks should offer depth. With Marcell Harris hitting free agency, Burks would be a logical candidate to fill his shoes, which means helping on special teams and working behind starters Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair. That was Burks' role in Green Bay and would seem to make the most sense for what he'll do in San Francisco, though Al-Shaair is a restricted free agent and Greenlaw is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

What's the risk: There's not much risk here given the price and what will be asked of Burks. The question would become how well Burks can step in if there's an injury ahead of him and he is asked to start? In four seasons, Burks has just seven starts, only three of which have come in the past three years.

George Odum, safety

The former Indianapolis Colts safety got a three-year deal with the 49ers worth up to $10.95 million, according to a source and first reported by NFL Network.

What it means: In case it wasn't already clear, the 49ers are serious about bolstering their special teams. They already spent good money on linebacker Oren Burks and returner Ray-Ray McCloud and continued by adding Odum, who has been one of the Colts core special teams players for the past four seasons. Odum also has proved durable, missing zero games because of injury in that time. He's only made 10 career defensive starts but probably won't be asked to do that here with Talanoa Hufanga and Tarvarius Moore primed to compete for the job next to Jimmie Ward.

What's the risk: If this means the end of Jaquiski Tartt's tenure in San Francisco (a possibility but not a certainty), the Niners are going into next season with a big question mark at strong safety. Hufanga and Moore have had flashes but neither has started more than Moore's 13 games. Could Odum work into that mix? The financial outlay would indicate it's a possibility but clearly Odum's primary responsibility will be as a difference maker on special teams.

Jordan Willis, defensive end

Willis is returning to the 49ers on a one-year deal.

What it means: Willis was the hero of the Niners' divisional round win against the Green Bay Packers, coming up with the blocked punt that led to the victory. He's been a solid special teams player and backup end since he arrived in San Francisco in 2020 via trade. Willis is also a well-liked and respected part of the locker room, and retaining him helps keep some needed continuity on a team going through plenty of offseason change.

What's the risk: There's little risk here since it's unlikely the money is significant. Willis did miss the first six games of last season because of a suspension for violation of the league's policy on performance enhancing substances, so another suspension would result in even more missed time. Otherwise, Willis has been a durable, reliable player capable of helping out in multiple ways.

Dontae Johnson, cornerback

Johnson is returning to the 49ers on a one-year deal.

What it means: Johnson might just play for the 49ers forever. There have been multiple occasions since Johnson arrived in San Francisco in 2014 that it seemed his time with the team might be up. But Johnson has persevered and (mostly) stuck around by carving out a role on special teams and providing depth at nearly every position in the secondary. Johnson delivered in some big moments in 2021 and keeping him around is nothing if not comforting for the Niners.

What's the risk: The Niners spent big money to land Charvarius Ward in free agency and Johnson's deal will be but a small fraction of that when it comes through. There's no risk in bringing Johnson back to compete once again. The real risk for the Niners is whether they have an answer at nickel cornerback after K'Waun Williams departed for Denver. Johnson can contribute there but isn't likely the top choice. Emmanuel Moseley is another option (with Ambry Thomas replacing him outside in nickel packages) but has had injury issues. With as many bodies as the Niners have at cornerback, they could still use more reinforcements even after bringing Johnson back.

Jeff Wilson Jr., running back

Wilson is returning to the 49ers on a one-year deal.

What it means: The 49ers have reached the stage of free agency where they can retain some of their role players at, presumably, bargain rates. With the departure of Raheem Mostert, Wilson will become the veteran voice in a running back room led by second-year backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon. Wilson has been a good special teams player and a hard-charging back with pass-catching ability during his time with the Niners. He provides a solid option behind Mitchell on the depth chart.

What's the risk: Wilson missed the first half of last season after suffering a freak knee injury in the offseason and has dealt with various other injury issues during his four seasons with the team. At times, he's looked ready to ascend to the No. 1 role but hasn't because of those ailments. Another year removed from that knee injury should help Wilson get back closer to his previous levels but it's difficult for the 49ers to count on him to have a substantial role until he proves he can get and stay healthy.

Kerry Hyder Jr., defensive end

Hyder agreed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal that includes $750,000 guaranteed, according to ESPN's Field Yates.

What it means: This is another reunion for the 49ers after Hyder departed for Seattle in free agency last offseason. Hyder had a strong 2020 with the Niners, his only season in San Francisco before leaving for a bigger contract in Seattle. But Hyder's success in that year with the 49ers -- he had a career-high 8.5 sacks -- was no coincidence. He's played his best football when working with San Francisco defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and it's reasonable to expect that to continue with them back together. And, yet again, the Niners demonstrate their commitment to having waves of talent available on the defensive line.

What's the risk: This is a low-risk, high-reward deal considering the cost is so minimal and we've already seen what the upside of a Hyder-Niners pairing looks like. There's really no downside here, though it should be said that the 49ers would still be wise to spend a relatively early pick on another edge rusher in a draft class considered deep at the position.

Ross Dwelley, tight end

Dwelley is returning to the 49ers on a one-year deal.

What it means: The 49ers have officially entered the stage of free agency where they are able to retain some of their depth at bargain rates. Dwelley is the latest in an expanding line of Niners re-signing and coming back for another run. This is also another step toward continuity in a tight ends room that has been full of constants under coach Kyle Shanahan, though things will be a bit different with former tight ends coach Jon Embree now in Miami.

What's the risk: This is a low cost depth signing that doesn't come with much risk. But the Niners would be wise to make another investment at the position in the draft. George Kittle has continued to miss at least some games with injuries and an upgrade from Dwelley and Charlie Woerner wouldn't hurt.

Kemoko Turay, defensive end

The 49ers are bringing in the former Indianapolis Colts defensive end on a one-year deal.

What it means: The 49ers, once again, are loading up on depth and upside on the defensive line. Turay joins a group that includes Nick Bosa, Samson Ebukam, Jordan Willis, Charles Omenihu and Kerry Hyder to give San Francisco six legitimate options on the edge. Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has a longstanding reputation of squeezing the most out of pass-rushers who previously underperformed -- Hyder in 2020, Arden Key in 2021, for example -- and with Turay coming off a career high 5.5 sacks, he could be next in line. If that happens, it would mean another chance to cash in next year for Turay and another year boasting one of the league's best pass rushes for the 49ers.

What's the risk: Much like many of the one-year deals the Niners have handed out this offseason, there's little actual risk here. But Turay does have a bit of an injury history, appearing in a combined 11 games in 2019 and 2020, and has yet to play a full season during his four years in the league. Which means the biggest risk would be if the Niners opted against adding more here in a draft class considered deep at the position.