Look back at 2012
The 49ers safeties were known throughout football as being one of the toughest, hard-hitting duos in the league. But after taking a closer look at Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, an argument can be made that they were the weakness of the defense, especially in playoffs.
Whitner was responsible was in coverage for eight of the team's 19 passing touchdowns surrendered in the regular season. In the postseason, he was in coverage for four, while the total stood at eight. And although Whitner is one of the better strong safeties up in the box against the run, teams with strong passing attacks began to key on the former Ohio State Buckeye in the red zone.
Goldson earned first-team all-pro recognition for the first time in his career to back up his Pro-Bowl season of 2011. The former fourth-round picked built a reputation as perhaps the hardest hitting free safety in football and wasn't afraid to lay a hat when needed. There were times, however, when he would be over aggressive and miss tackles or incur personal foul penalties for leading with his head.
Overall, the strengths of the safeties lied in plays in front of them, whether they were the running or passing plays. Having one of the league's top front-sevens also helped minimize their liabilities.
C.J. Spillman saw just 32 snaps (3.6 percent) on defense while doing the majority of his work on special teams. Same for Darcel McBath, who appeared on just 36 snaps in the regular season.
Comings and Goings
Goldson left as a free agent and signed a lucrative five-year, $41.25 million contract with Tampa Bay in mid-March. He becomes the Buccaneers' second major addition to the secondary this offseason after Derrelle Revis was acquired via trade with the Jets. Goldson had played under the franchise tag earning roughly $6.2 million last season.
Goldson had made at clear he wanted a long-term contract, like one he got with Tampa Bay, before getting franchised. But the 49ers didn't believe he was irreplaceable to the point where he needed a significant cap number. That theory will be put to the test early this season, as the club elected to move up in the draft to No. 18 overall to take Eric Reid from LSU.
Jim Harbaugh's interest in Reid dates back to his time at Stanford when he recruited him as one of the most touted prep prospects in the country. Ultimately Reid chose LSU because it's where his father went to school as an All-American hurdler, having won the NCAA Championship in 110-meter hurdles in 1987. But given Reid's academic record, he shouldn't have much problem digesting everything the team asks of him, it's just a matter of execution and learning the speed of the game.
Having played three seasons (starting two) in the SEC will certainly help. Reid possesses the size, strength and intangibles to become a Pro-Bowl-level safety at some point. But if he starts, there's little doubt opposing offenses will try to look to take advantage of his inexperience at this level.
Reid is the type of player that stands out on the field because of his big physical frame and fluidity. But he faces a steep learning curve should he become the 49ers' starting safety from Day 1.
Prior to the draft, San Francisco signed free-agent Craig Dahl. The former Ram started 16 games for the division rival in 2012. Dahl might not be a star player, but he should be a serviceable veteran presence that can start if the 49ers decide not start Reid on opening day. He can also play both safety spots and play on special teams.
In early-June, the 49ers announced the signing of six-year veteran Raymond Ventrone, who has never started a game in the NFL but has been a standout on special teams for the Patriots and Browns. He has experience under special teams coach Brad Seeley, who coached him in Cleveland and New England.
Former Stanford safety Michael Thomas signed a reserve contract following last season after spending 2012 on the practice squad.
Safeties in Camp
Craig Dahl (6'1", 212 pounds) seventh season, North Dakota State
Darcel McBath (6'1", 198) fourth season, Texas Tech
Eric Reid (6'1", 213) first season, Louisiana State
Trenton Robinson (5'9", 193) second season, Michigan State
C.J. Spillman (6'0", 199) fifth season, Marshall
Michael Thomas (5'11", 196) first season, Stanford
Reymond Ventrone (5'10", 200) eighth season, Villanova
Donte Whitner (5'10", 208) eighth season, Ohio State
Locks to Make the Roster
Barring injury or any other catastrophes, the top-three safety spots will go to Reid, Whitner and Dahl. The 49ers broke camp with five safeties in 2012. That would make three positions available between the remaining five players competing.
Battling for Spots
San Francisco has put an emphasis on improving special teams play this offseason by acquiring "aces" like Ventrone, wideout Kassim Osgood and linebacker Dan Skuta. They also drafted Nick Moody with special teams in mind. That being said, it's fair to assume Ventrone has the inside track on a roster spot.
That would leave two more spots on the 53-man roster available to either McBath, Spillman, Robinson or Thomas. Spillman was one of the team's best gunners in punt coverage last which could give them leg up on the others. That means there will likely be a heated battle for the final safety job between McBath, Robinson and Thomas.
Thomas played for Harbaugh at Stanford and is the type of football player the coaching staff loves, despite not having the ideal size or athleticism to eventually compete for a starting job. Robinson was taken in the sixth round of the 2012 draft and appeared in three games to start the year before being inactivated the rest of the season. McBath might have the edge given his experience of 37 games (including a start for the Broncos in 2010) over Robinson and Thomas. McBath appeared in seven games last season on special teams.