In the 2014 and 2015 drafts, the 49ers selected a pair of hybrid cornerback-safeties in Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt.
Each was projected to be valuable to the secondary as a versatile athlete capable of helping at slot corner or safety.
Now with the team’s release of starting safety Antoine Bethea, both Ward and Tartt could be in the mix for earning a starting spot alongside Eric Reid, the team’s No. 1 pick from the 2013 draft.
Bethea, 32, asked for his release from the 49ers to explore new opportunities.
“I think it was a better fit for both parties,” Bethea told ESPN’s Josina Anderson Tuesday. “I want to take some time to explore my options. I still got some ball left in me.”
In a statement released to the media, new 49ers general manager John Lynch thanked Bethea for his three years of service to the team and wished him well.
“We would like to thank him for the positive impact he has had on this team both as a player and as a leader, on and off the field,” Lynch said.
Bethea’s departure frees up about $5.75 million against the cap, reported ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner. That gives the team about $100 million under the salary cap heading into Thursday’s first day of the NFL’s free agency period.
Wagoner noted that Ward is the leading candidate at free safety.
After missing nine games to injury in 2015, Bethea played all 16 games in 2016 at strong safety with San Francisco, and was in on 100 tackles. He had one interception and three passes defensed. He played the first eight seasons of his NFL career in Indianapolis before coming to the 49ers in 2014.
Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, wrote that Bethea – respected by his peers as a leader – may not have been ideal for the 49ers’ new defensive scheme.
“(He) might have been an odd fit in a new 49ers defense that calls for a big, bruising safety who plays close to the line of scrimmage and a smaller, swifter free safety counterpart who plays deep downfield,” wrote Barrows. “His release further suggests the 49ers are considering Jimmie Ward as their free safety and Eric Reid or Jaquiski Tartt as the strong safety.”
The 49ers may also invest in a veteran in free agency. The free-agency signing period begins at 1 p.m. PST Thursday.