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Free Agency 49ers Football

New San Francisco 49ers Kwon Alexander, left, and Dee Ford take questions during Thursday's news conference in Santa Clara.

SANTA CLARA — The most glaring need for the San Francisco 49ers this offseason was clear after the defense set records for futility with just seven takeaways and two interceptions last season.

The team’s first two big moves of the new league year were made to address that deficiency with the additions of an edge rusher in Dee Ford, who has a propensity for strip sacks, and a speedy linebacker in Kwon Alexander, who has a knack for finding the ball.

“That wasn’t fun to watch,” general manager John Lynch said Thursday. “It is something we have to live with. It’s a reality, and we needed to change that. These are the type of players that we believe can reverse that trend. Starting with Kwon. He’s always around the ball. There’s so many things to like, but that is definitely something that jumps. And then Dee, he has a knack for getting the ball out. Eight forced fumbles last year, and that first step is lethal. We think that can help our entire team get that virus going, where we’re taking away the ball on a regular basis.”

The 49ers paid a big price for these additions, trading a 2020 second-round pick to Kansas City to acquire Ford and then giving him a five-year, $87.5 million contract, and signing Alexander to a four-year deal worth $54 million.

Ford had a career-high 13 sacks last season and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles. He also led all edge rushers with 84 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, making him exactly the kind of playmaker the 49ers lacked on defense this past season.

“It’s really a mindset and muscle memory,” Ford said of forcing turnovers. “It’s not really an intricate skill to have. It’s just a mindset. Most guys get to the quarterback and just want to take him down. Just switch the mentality and knock the ball out. You have to work it. Everything happens so fast so it needs to be muscle memory to go for the ball.”

The 49ers haven’t had an edge rusher reach double digits in sacks since Aldon Smith had 19 1/2 in 2012 and have the fifth-fewest overall sacks in the NFL the past six seasons. DeForest Buckner led the team with 12 sacks this past season, mostly from an interior spot.

Alexander, coming off a torn ACL, has six career interceptions, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and seven sacks in 46 games.

“Speed and violence affect the quarterback and make people do stupid things before they want to,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Both of these guys have a lot of speed, and they both play very violent.”

With Ford slated to start at defensive end in the Leo position on San Francisco’s defense, the strategy in the draft could be altered. The Niners have the second overall pick and could be in position to take Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, who is projected to play the same role.

Now they could be in position to move down in the draft or look at a rush linebacker like Josh Allen.

“We’re evaluating everyone,” Lynch said. “Having Dee just makes us a better football team, and the draft’s something separate. Yes, those two do interact at some point, but we’ll see. We’re going to go out there and look. At No. 2, you want to have a great football player. That’s what we’re looking for and we’ll see where it ends up.”

The 49ers also signed cornerback Jason Verrett to a one-year deal, receiver Jordan Matthews to a one-year contract, linebacker David Mayo to a two-year contract, and agreed on a one-year deal to bring back safety Antone Exum. San Francisco also released linebacker Brock Coyle, who announced he will retire after suffering a back injury last season.

Verrett is a 2014 first-round pick by the Chargers and made the Pro Bowl in 2015. But he has played only five games the past three seasons after suffering knee injuries in 2016 and ‘17 and then tearing his Achilles tendon during a conditioning test on the first day of training camp last year.

Verrett will compete with 2017 third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon and 2018 third-rounder Tarvarius Moore for the starting spot across from Richard Sherman.

“It’s a smile now, cry later type of thing for me,” Verrett said of his run of injuries. “It was a lot of dark moments dealing with the injuries, but I came out of the tunnel and I’m ready to get things rolling.”

Matthews is a cousin of former 49ers great Jerry Rice and has always wanted to play for the team. He was a second-round pick by Philadelphia in 2014 and has 270 catches for 3,255 yards and 22 TDs in five seasons with the Eagles and Buffalo.

Matthews averaged 75 catches a year his first three seasons before being slowed by injuries in 2017 with the Bills and a lack of opportunities last season with the Eagles after returning to Philadelphia.

Mayo was a special teams standout for Carolina who offers depth at inside linebacker for San Francisco.

Exum spent the past two seasons with the 49ers and started seven games at safety in 2018.

Raiders cut WR Nelson, QB McCarron

ALAMEDA — After making several big-ticket additions to start free agency, the Oakland Raiders are now making some cuts.

The Raiders released 2018 leading wide receiver Jordy Nelson and backup quarterback AJ McCarron on Thursday to create salary cap space after going on a spending spree earlier this week.

The moves save more than $8.5 million for the upcoming season after the Raiders committed more than $50 million in salary cap space to acquire receiver Antonio Brown, tackle Trent Brown, safety Lamarcus Joyner and receiver Tyrell Williams.

Nelson signed a $14.2 million, two-year deal last March with the Raiders and had 63 catches for 739 yards in his one season in Oakland. The Raiders turned his $3.6 million roster bonus for 2019 into a signing bonus late last season, which leaves them with $1.8 million in dead money this year.

Coach Jon Gruden had planned to keep Nelson before plans changed when Brown became available from Pittsburgh last weekend.

The Raiders traded a 2019 fifth-round pick to Buffalo last year to acquire McCarron as the backup to Derek Carr. McCarron appeared in just two games with three passes before the team decided to go in another direction.

The move leaves Nathan Peterman as the only backup on the roster. Peterman was fifth-round pick by Buffalo in 2017 but was cut last season after beginning the year as the starter. He is 68 for 130 in his career for 548 yards, three TDs, 12 interceptions and a 32.5 passer rating in his career.

The Raiders also signed defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins to a two-year contract to return to Oakland and formally announced the deal with Joyner that was agreed to earlier this week.

Hankins spent his first four seasons with the Giants and then played for Indianapolis in 2017 before joining the Raiders last season. He had 36 tackles and two fumble recoveries last season for Oakland and will be part of a rotation at defensive tackle with second-year players Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall, as well as Justin Ellis.

“I’m definitely honored to be here for another two more years, be a part of the movement going forward,” Hankins said. “It’s exciting seeing everybody that they’ve been signing. I just can’t wait to get back to work and prove everybody wrong and let them know that the Raiders are back.”

Joyner is the most notable addition so far for a defense that ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed per play (6.27) and points allowed per game (29.2) last season.

The Raiders coveted Joyner for his versatility; he had experience playing cornerback, in the slot and safety in five seasons with the Rams. He was at his best after moving exclusively to free safety the past two seasons under coordinator Wade Phillips but said he’s ready to play in the slot if needed for Oakland.

Joyner looks forward to come in on the ground floor of a rebuild after helping Florida State rebound from a team that struggled in coach Bobby Bowden’s final seasons before he arrived and then won a national championship under Jimbo Fisher in his senior season.

“When I entered both organizations, they weren’t doing too well,” he said. “Even my years with the Rams, we started off slow, but they got the right guys in. I feel like I’m one of the first stepping stones, one of those first milestones for Coach Gruden to bring the right guys in and change this place around.”

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