Rather than move on to the linebackers and continue a run through the front seven, we're moving to safeties in our next review/preview post. We've got some individual posts on linebackers and cornerbacks today so it seems like a good idea to mix things up a little bit to avoid repetitive conversations in the same day.
Yesterday we discussed the defensive line, and as expected most folks do not see the line as a significant issue moving forward. 82% gave the line a four or five. There are some depth issues to be sorted out, but with the players in place the line looks to be in solid shape for 2012.
The safety positions on the other hand have a fairly significant question mark heading into free agency. Dashon Goldson and Reggie Smith are both heading into free agency, leaving the possibility of question marks at free safety. The common refrain is that the 49ers will franchise Goldson if they can't get a deal worked out. Nothing can be assumed until it actually happens, but it seems like the odds are decent that Goldson is back for at least one more year.
The Hawk bounced back from a tough 2010 with a Pro Bowl 2011 season. It was an interesting season for Goldson as we saw a bit of the boom/bust qualities we have become a bit used to with him. He has a penchant for big plays, but in his attempts to make some of these big plays, he sometimes gives up some big plays to the offense. Whether he is going for the big interception or the big hit, the play is not always there and the defense can suffer accordingly.
It sort of falls in line with the aggressive nature of the defense. The 49ers did a better job this year of having some back-end support for the playermakers, but as is the case in any aspect of football, execution is not always 100% and it can burn you.
Simply put, you basically take with the bad with the good when it comes to Dashon Goldson. If the 49ers do not franchise him, it will be interesting to see how the market settles for Goldson. He found himself without many suitors last offseason, but he is now coming off a fairly high profile season on a high profile defense. He was tied for the team lead in interceptions and whether we like it or not, things like that can lead to inflated values.
Carlos Rogers turned into the high profile free agent bargain, but Donte Whitner hasn't been too shabby either. Whitner signed a three year, $11.25 million contract with the 49ers shortly after reportedly coming to terms with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Whitner operates well in run support and is a nice complement to Dashon Goldson deeper in the secondary. He is not spectacular in pass coverage, but he fits his role at strong safety quite well. While he does not fly around the field looking for monster hits, he showed an ability to make a game-changing hit when he forced Pierre Thomas to fumble the ball deep in 49ers territory, and knocked the running back from the NFC divisional playoff matchup.
While Whitner can improve in his coverage skills, he was overall a very solid safety and provides security at the position for the next couple of years.
It was a tough season for Reggie Smith. Before the 49ers re-signed Dashon Goldson, Smith had emerged as the starting free safety early in training camp. However, a torn meniscus sidelined him long enough for Goldson to regain his starting role at free safety. Smith received playing time early in the season, but aside from a week three interception against Cincinnati, he flew under the radar for most of the rest of the season.
Smith is an unrestricted free agent and it sounds like he and the 49ers have come to an agreement that he will look for work elsewhere. He could always end up back in SF if he can't find a deal, but it seems like it would be pretty surprising for him to return. His departure makes the need for some safety help all the more important. Even if the 49ers bring back Dashon Goldson, it seems like adding a young safety sometime during day two of the draft could be a wise decision.
Spillman spent much of his season focusing on special teams as part of dominant kick and punt coverage units. He did get some work at safety during the season, but for the most part special teams was his forte. Spillman is a restricted free agent, which means the 49ers can get a chance to bring him back if an outside contract offer is to their liking. The 49ers would need to tender Spillman (which they will likely do) and then match any offer that he might get, if they want to bring him back. Spillman could be a guy who can develop into a stronger backup option, but it is a tough call given his lack of significant safety playing time.
The 49ers signed Madieu Williams to a one year contract prior to bringing back Dashon Goldson. Williams got starting time at both free safety and strong safety when Goldson and Donte Whitner suffered injuries. He got some special teams play in as well, but for the most part was a bit of a non-factor as the season wore on. He brought some versatility but the 49ers did not really utilize it too much.
Williams is now an unrestricted free agent. He is still only 30, so they could potentially bring him back on the cheap, but if they decide to convert Cory Nelms to safety and/or add some safety help in the draft, they might be satisfied to simply let Williams walk.
Although Jones played safety in college, the 49ers drafted him strictly for special teams work. He developed into a solid member of the coverage units and will likely stick with that moving forward. I would imagine he might get some snaps at safety in OTAs and training camp, but barring some wildly impressive performances, he'll be sticking with special teams.