The San Francisco 49ers kicked off rookie minicamp yesterday, and will begin their first set of OTAs next Tuesday. That means the eventual training camp depth chart will start to get a little more clarity. I should say, clarity for the team. Given that OTAs involve no tackling, it's as much about the players learning the playbook, and any adjustments to it for the veterans. This is the kind of stuff we can't really know about, and so we're left to sort of half guess at what exactly is going on.
And so, we've got a 12-part series looking at each positional unit. Thus far, we've completed our look at the offensive backfield, with quarterbacks and running backs and fullbacks, followed up by tight ends, wide receivers and the offensive line. We moved over to the defensive line on Friday, outside linebackers and inside linebackers on Saturday, and cornerbacks yesterday. We now wrap up the defensive side of the ball with safeties. We'll continue with the format of offseason changes, what the depth chart might look like, strengths and weaknesses, and wrapping with a look at what it all means.
The 49ers completed a two-year turnover of the top of the safety depth chart. Last offseason the team moved on from Dashon Goldson, replacing him with rookie Eric Reid. This offseason, the 49ers parted ways with Donte Whitner, replacing him with Colts free agent Antoine Bethea. Prior to free agency, the 49ers restructured Craig Dahl's contract, lowering his salary, but guaranteeing a chunk of it. The team then drafted defensive backs Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson, and signed undrafted free agent L.J. McCray.
I included Ward and Johnson because both played safety for stretches in college. Ward is expected to play nickel back, while Johnson is going to get his initial opportunity at cornerback. I included them in here because they do still provide a certain measure of versatility.
Check out our offseason tracker for the entire rundown of moves.
Free safety Eric Reid enters his second season with the team, coming off a strong rookie campaign in which he had a chance to learn from a strong veteran in Donte Whitner. There is the question of how Reid will perform without Whitner next to him, but he does have another stable veteran in Antoine Bethea. It remains to be seen what the 49ers will get from Bethea as he is getting older, but David Neumann's All-22 review did leave the door open for some optimism.
Bethea's age and Reid not having Whitner next to him are two of the bigger question marks. After that, depth is a question mark. Craig Dahl was the primary backup free safety last year, and the times he did enter were not the most pleasant of experiences. The team has drafted two defensive backs in Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson that have safety experience. Both are expected to focus on cornerback, but it is possible they could also get some work as depth options at safety. We don't know how much if any time they'll get, but it is something to consider.
What it all means
If the 49ers can remain healthy at safety, they should be fine with their starters. Reid proved last season that he can hang at the NFL level. Bethea is getting older, but he conceivably should have enough left in the tank to buy some time. The depth remains a concern, but I am curious to see whether or not Ward and/or Johnson gets some safety work in training camp. I would not be surprised to see them focusing exclusively on their cornerback jobs, but it is still something I'll be tracking in training camp. Maybe this is mostly because I don't want to see the rest of the depth chart if injuries do happen.