49ers Training Camp Position Battles: The Safeties

Over the next few days I am going to be taking a look at position battles in 49ers camp. Most of the starting positions are locked in at this point, but that doesn't mean that there wont be substantial competition for reserve roles. Today, I am going to take a look at a position that promises to top that competition; the safety position. 

It is surprising that the 49ers safety position, one of their weakest over the course of the last few seasons, is shaping to be one of their deepest in 2011. A combination of free agent acquisitions and draft picks has enabled San Francisco to find upgrade here.

This also means that there promises to be a lot of competition in regards to the positing, starting with Friday's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints.

Over the last couple of weeks this position has taken a turn, then another turn, and yesterday yet another turn. Dashon Goldson, who appeared all but gone, re-signed with San Francisco. His replacement for the free safety position, Reggie Smith, went down with an injury and is expected to miss at least a month. Oh, and Taylor Mays is still on the trading block. This follows a hectic one week period in which the 49ers added Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams to the mix. So, where do they all stack up?


Strong Safety: Donte Whitner: 16 Games, 16 Starts, 140 Tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 7 Passes Defended

Whitner has been the vocal leader of the Buffalo Bills defense for the last five seasons. In 2009, the former Ohio State standout took over play calling duties, like most strong safeties do. Whitner improved a great deal in pass coverage, but that is still seen as a liability. This isn't that big of a deal considering that strong safeties in the 3-4 scheme tend to play close to the line of scrimmage and utilize their skills to be all over the place on defense.

You can expect Whitner to take over the leadership void left by Takeo Spikes when he signed with San Diego. He is an extremely victorious individual and doesn't just lead be example. This is something that San Francisco desperately needed heading into the 2011 season.

You can also expect Whitner to be more in his comfort zone this season. On more than one occasion, he has stated that this type of defense fits his skill set more than the Tampa 2 the Bills ran. I indicated a few months ago that the 49ers defense would look more like the schemes in Pittsburgh and Green Bay; Whitner reiterated this when speaking to the media over the weekend.

This type of scheme is going to fit his skills a great deal and you can expect to hear his name called a lot on Sunday's. It goes without saying that Whitner will start, and excel at strong safety this season.


Free Safety: Dashon Goldson: 16 Games, 80 Tackles, 1 INT, 1 Sack, 1 TD, 5 Passes Defended

It is foolhardy to believe that Reggie Smith, the 49ers "starting free safety" will be back by opening day, so the job falls into the lap of Goldson; who wasn't even on this team 48 hours ago. Goldson struggled a great deal in coverage last season. He was burnt way too much, took bad angles on coverage and was caught out of position a lot. However, Goldson still has incredible upside to go a long with that talent.

He is just two years removed from playing at a top tier level and working with guru, Ed Donatell, could help a great deal in fixing those coverage issue. Goldson's skill set fits the strong safety position much more than it does the free safety position, so it could be concluded he will be playing out of position. That said, if the 49ers are able to fix those coverage issues, this could be a nice little safety tandem. If not, you are looking at to similar players starting opposite one another until Smith returns to full strength. As it is, San Francisco only committed a one year contract to a player that seemed like he was going to get a big pay day.

 

Free Safety: Reggie Smith 16 Games, 42 Tackles, 1 INT, 4 Passes Defended

Before getting injured over the weekend, Reggie Smith was a standout of the 49ers camp. Unofficially he led all 49er defensive players in interceptions and was all over the field. You couldn't read a report on training camp without hearing Smith's name called. In fact, it became apparent that he had the free safety position already locked up. However, an injury to his meniscus muscle seemed to have ended what could be considered a breakout camp for Smith.

But, lets not get ahead of ourselves here. Smith, who is still only 24, couldn't beat out Dashon Goldson last season and had his own issues with coverage. It seems that he has improved those coverage issues over the off-season and during camp. When healthy, Smith was challenge Goldson for the free safety position because he is more of a natural at that position.

Smith is still incredibly young and has a tremendous amount of upside. I look forward to watching him once he returns from injury and moving forward in 2011.

 

Back Up Positions

Madieu Williams: 14 Games, 75 Tackles, 1 FF, 1 INT, 2 Passes Defended

During the 2007 off-season, Madieu Williams was the most sought after safety in the free agent market. He was just two year removed from an all-pro type season that saw him record 90 tackles, 3 INT and a whopping 13 passes defended from the free safety position. Shortly after signing a 6 year- 33 million dollar contract with the Minnesota Vikings, Williams injured his neck on a freak play and has never been the same type of player.

Viking fans continued to be frustrated by Williams coverage liability in 2010, which was probably his worse season as a pro. He was continually burned and, much like Goldson, took horrible angles in pass coverage.

This was a low risk, high reward type of signing for the 49ers. Williams will be making the veteran minimum in 2010 and can step in as a spot starter if needed. There is also a possibility that he regains pre-injury form, which would only make San Francisco's safety position that much better. I will go against the grain here and predict that Williams is a lock to make the roster


Taylor Mays: 38 Tackles, 1 FF, 2 Passes Defended

By now, it is pretty apparent that Mays is on the trading block, but the reason why he fell out of favor in San Francisco seems to be a mystery. A couple years ago the former USC start was destined to be a top ten pick, however, that never came to fruition. Instead, he fell onto the 49ers lap in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft.

It didn't take long for Mays to break the starting lineup his rookie season, but it took a shorter amount of time for him to fall down on the depth chart. There were issues in regards to his coverage ability and understanding of offensive schemes; two things that rookie safeties tend to struggle with. Once Jim Harbaugh was hired it seems that Mays fit into San Francisco's future plans as an up-and-coming defensive back. Then, last week it all took a bizarre turn. The 49ers sent a mass email out to the other 31 teams stating that Mays was available via trade. The same day San Francisco signed Donte Whitner, which at the time seemed to end Mays' career with the 49ers.

To date he remains on the roster and has been extremely impressive over the last couple days of camp. Safety competition has gotten increasingly more difficult with the aforementioned addition of Whitner and San Francisco's retention of free agent, Dashon Goldson.

Where does Mays fit in? I doubt very much that San Francisco will outright release Mays, but it seems like a strong possibility that he will be traded. There are a number of teams that seem interested in his services, and we will see what happens moving forward. If Mays sticks with San Francisco you will see him as the third safety off the bench and a special teams player. Not much value for a 2nd round pick from last years draft.

 

Chris Maragos: A former walk on at Wisconsin, Margagos has impressed 49er personnel with his ability to not only play special teams but contribute on the defensive side of the ball. He finally got a chance to see action in an NFL game towards the end of the 2010 season and recorded a couple of tackles in three games.

He isn't the most athletically gifted player in the league, but Maragos brings intensity and strength to the position. I am sure that the 49ers will think long and hard about keeping him as the 5th safety in 2011.

 

C.J. Spillman: He played in all 16 games for two teams last season and was a special teams standout. Spillman was extremely solid in punt coverage and gave San Francisco a threat in that part of the game. During camp he has been running with the first team defense, which is a testament to his improved play on defense. 

The 49ers are looking for backups that are extremely strong in special teams and Spillman brings that to the table. I fully expect the coaching staff to give him ample opportunity on defense to see if he can improve in that aspect. If so, it would seem that Spillman will make the 53 man roster.

 

Curtis Taylor: The complete opposite of Spillman, Taylor has the athletic ability and build to be a real good safety in the NFL. However, he has yet to put it together on a consistent basis on defense and time might be running out. The 49ers safety position is extremely deep right now, so Taylor may be the odd man out. He doesn't have an time left on the practice squad, which means that if Taylor doesn't make the 53 he is likely gone all together. This is going to be an important camp for Taylor, but you are looking at him being a long shot to make the roster.

 

Colin Jones: A special team stud, Jones may just make the roster because of his ability to cover kicks and punts. If San Francisco decides on keeping six safeties, he will probably make the 53 man roster. If not, you are looking at a practice squad candidate. Harbaugh and company will give Jones an extensive look during preseason games in order for him to prove that he can play defense at the next level. 

Analysis: At this point it would seem that Whitner, Goldson, Smith, Williams and Spillman will probably have spots on the 53 man roster. If San Francisco decides to only keep five safeties, the rest are out of luck. If they decide to keep six then you have four players fighting for one spot; talk about competition. 

The wildcard in this situation is Taylor Mays, who is on the trade block. If he is traded, that will possibly open up a spot for Colin Jones, Chris Maragos or Curtis Taylor; if not, it is hard to imagine San Francisco releasing Mays outright. 

That said, the 49ers are in a great position at safety, which is something we haven't been able to say for the last few seasons. A couple talented players are going to get cut and catch on with some other team. This is a testament to the talent at this position. 

 

My Safety Depth Chart

1. Donte Whitner

2. Dashon Goldson

3. Reggie Smith

4. Madieu Williams

5. C.J. Spillman

6. Chris Maragos

7. Taylor Mays

8. Colin Jones

9. Curtis Taylor

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