This article is based on a FanPost linking to an interesting article about the safety position in the NFL. However, I'm thinking a "best case/worst case" series of articles could be fun over the course of the offseason. I reserve the right to completely drop this idea, but we'll see.
The San Francisco 49ers entered free agency with some question marks about the safety position, with Donte Whitner entering free agency. We did not hear much about the team's plans with regard to Whitner, and before long, we realized why. Whitner signed an impressive 4-year deal with the Cleveland Browns on the first day of free agency, and later that afternoon, the 49ers signed fellow free agent safety Antoine Bethea to a 4-year deal of his own. Whitner's deal is worth $28 million, while Bethea's is worth closer to $22 million.
David Neumann put together an all-22 breakdown of Bethea's work, and he described him as a bit of a poor man's Donte Whitner. He is solid against the run, and can struggle in coverage. David was optimistic to some extent because Bethea was moving to a defense with more quality parts surrounding him. It doesn't mean he'll be better than Whitner, but it puts him in a better situation.
This brings me to the article mentioned above. SI.com's Andy Benoit put together a brief discussion of the evolution of the safety position. The article was based on the fact that the offensive evolution with more dynamic tight ends and more spread out offenses means more work for the secondary. He took a look at each team that brought in a new safety this offseason and detailed what it meant for the team.
In discussing Bethea, Benoit viewed him as a guy not necessarily entering the downside of his career as some project. He pointed to his health (he has not missed a game since 2007), but also the fact that he will move to a more beneficial scheme. According to Benoit, the Colts used Bethea in more isolated man-to-man work on tight ends to open the door for LaRon Landry to operate in space. However, that will not be his role in San Francisco:
Relying on linebacker Patrick Willis to cover tight ends, they usually keep two safeties back deep. Bethea will be a read-and-react help defender, which is his forte. He doesn't have Whitner's pad-cracking prowess, but he's a trusty wrap-up tackler.
The big key is his veteran presence with versatility:
Under Bill Polian, the zone-heavy Colts ... rotated a lot of backup safeties because Bob Sanders was often hurt. Bethea routinely stabilized those defensive backfields ... [a]nd when Chuck Pagano's regime replaced the zone system with a multifaceted man-based hybrid scheme, Bethea expanded his game. The Niners, having overhauled their entire secondary with mostly youth, need a cerebral field general on the back end.
Tramaine Brock and Eric Reid have the most extensive starting experience in the 49ers secondary. Chris Culliver technically has never started, but he was a quasi-starter given the extent to which the 49ers played their sub packages. Either way, this is a very young secondary, and it will only get younger with the addition of at least one defensive back in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Adding Bethea will hopefully bring a bit of a calming influence as needed over the coming season. I think Eric Reid will continue to develop quite nicely back there, but I like the idea of a veteran presence. Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh have frequently talked about how the improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 is as big as anything else given the full offseason. This is a big period for Eric Reid, so getting that veteran alongside of him should hopefully help further that improvement.
Best Case: Antoine Bethea fills in quite ably in place of Donte Whitner. He does all that Whitner did, but without the big penalties. He is able to play a bit more down-hill, playing a bit more to his strengths. Long term, I'm thinking that means they get a strong first year and a solid second year from Bethea before transitioning to a young strong safety of the future. An alternative "best case" is that Bethea is strong through the four years of his contract, but I would be plenty happy with two good years and then transition out.
Worst Case: The absolute worst is that he struggles with coverage, and with making plays against the run. He is more of a homeless man's Donte Whitner. This could then split off into two options: 1) The 49ers have drafted a safety in May 2014, who then takes over for Bethea, leaving the 49ers with wasted contract money. I think most of us would not like this, but could at least kind of live with this. 2) The 49ers draft a safety who isn't ready and the 49ers are left with a hole next to Eric Reid. It creates more work for Reid, which is just a little bit too much for the second year player.
As always, I think it falls somewhere in the middle. I do think we'll see a strong first season from Bethea, but after that, it's anybody's guess. The cleaner play in terms of penalties is a big plus as far as I'm concerned. Maybe it means fewer big hits, but if he plays technically sound football, I think all of us can live with that. Overall, I'm rather optimistic about Bethea.