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Safety: Long look back, brief look forward

Up to this point as we've been doing our positional reviews, we've been focusing on the offense, hitting up quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end. Now seemed as good a time as any to take a look at some defensive positions. So, we start it off with a look at the safety position.

Dashon Goldson

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Dashon Goldson 16 2 7 4 39 0 76 18 94

Dashon Goldson is a guy who raises a lot of debate among 49ers fans. How good is he? Should he be playing free safety or strong safety? Does he really need to always be going for the big blow-up tackle? Among defensive backs (it won't sort by safety vs. cornerback) Goldson finished tied for 11th in total tackles and tied for 23rd in interceptions, tied for 2nd in sacks, and tied for 4th in fumbles. Whatever your opinion of Goldson, those are good numbers.

One reason I decided to go with the safety position is because Football Outsiders put together some interesting numbers about safeties. I've mentioned the FO Stat of the Day feature, and the one related to Goldson is Pass Tackles for Safeties. In 2009, Goldson finished third among safeties making plays on completed passes (51), and also third among safeties in making stops on completed passes (11).

So what does that all mean? Well, the first making plays category is simply any tackle that happened after a pass reception. The making stops category counts a play as successful (a "Stop") if it prevents 40 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third/fourth down. Obviously these stats aren't the be-all and end-all of measuring a safety's performance. After all, there are so many other factors to consider ranging from the type of coverage the defense is using, to whether a safety was actually in coverage on the guy he ended up tackling.

Whatever you want to make of those stats, Dashon Goldson is definitely a play-making safety. Maybe he goes for too many big hits at times, but I'm excited for what the future holds for Goldson, whether it be as a free safety or strong safety.

Michael Lewis

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Michael Lewis 15 1 7 1 0 0 72 11 83

Michael Lewis doesn't always get a lot of love from the fans, but he has quietly put together three straight solid seasons as the 49ers strong safety. Although he has his struggles in the passing game, Michael Lewis is a top notch option when it comes to stopping the rushing game. Over the past three seasons he's averaged 94 tackles, ranking second or third on the team each season. His tackle numbers have declined each season, but I would imagine that has as much to do with an improving 49ers defense as anything else.

Lewis will be 30 entering the 2010 and is signed through the 2012 season. The big issue entering this offseason was the fact that Lewis suffered three separate concussions over the course of the 2009 season. That's a big deal no matter what, but with the increasing emphasis on dealing with concussions, and Jeff Ulbrich's retirement because of his concussion, we're all intrigued to see what kind of decision Michael Lewis ends up making. There are plenty of young options out there, but if Lewis can stay healthy, he's still a solid enough option at strong safety.

Mark Roman

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Mark Roman 15 1 9 1 27 0 45 7 52

There are few players on the 49ers roster that draws the ire of fans quite like Roman. Given his appearance in the end-of-game Hail Mary by the Vikings, I don't imagine people forgiving him anytime soon. Although Roman struggled at times, the 32-year old safety managed a bit of a resurgence coming off the bench. Considering he forced turnovers for the first time since 2006, he wasn't exactly awful.

At the same time, Roman is a free agent and I really don't see the team re-signing him.Last offseason, when it was announced that Dashon Goldson was taking over Roman's job, the 49ers gave Roman a chance to find a trading partner where he might be able to start. Nothing came of that and Roman returned to the 49ers roster this season. He ended up seeing significant playing time when Michael Lewis went down with his various concussions. People will be looking to move past the Mark Roman era, but I'd argue it could have gone a lot worse (hopefully Florida Danny doesn't have an aneurysm after that line).

Reggie Smith

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Reggie Smith 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Reggie Smith was drafted as a safety in the third round in 2008. The team slowly began converting him to safety, but that process has hit a bit of a hiccup. If you do a search here for "Reggie Smith," a vast majority of the recent results mentioning him involve injury reports. Smith is signed for two more seasons, but this could be a rather big offseason for him, particularly if the 49ers grab a big name safety in the draft or free agency. Dashon Goldson isn't going anywhere at this point so time is running out for Smith to make an impact with the 49ers, and that timeline could get really tight in the next three months.

Curtis Taylor

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Curtis Taylor 3 0 0 0 0 0 3 1 4

The 49ers grabbed Curtis Taylor in the seventh round of last year's draft and gave him a fair amount of time on special teams. Taylor's season was cut short by a torn hip flexor muscle, when he was placed on injured reserve December 1. Taylor was a simple flyer pick and will likely continue seeing a lot of time on special teams. I'm curious to see how the team utilizes him come training camp if Mark Roman is gone. Taylor is a free safety and for now is the backup free safety. Maybe he gets a significant bump in playing time next season?

Looking Forward
There are a lot of intriguing safeties available in free agency and the draft. If they do not choose to stand pat, the 49ers could go in a lot of directions. In free agency, there are a lot of options, but most of them will likely be re-signed or tagged by their current team. Of course, it's still interesting to consider the four biggest names:

O.J. Atogwe (FS)

Nick Collins (FS)

Antoine Bethea (FS)

Roman Harper (SS)

2010 NFL Draft

Eric Berry is the guy people would love to have, while Taylor Mays is a name that sticks out to people. Given that the 49ers have 3 of the first 45 picks in this year's draft, they certainly have some flexibility in how they could address the safety position.

Overall Rank Strong Safeties School
Chad Jones LSU
Morgan Burnett Georgia Tech
T.J. Ward Oregon
Reshad Jones Georgia
Darrell Stuckey Kansas
Kurt Coleman Ohio State
Larry Asante Nebraska
Harry Coleman LSU
Kyle McCarthy Notre Dame
Myron Rolle Florida State
Barry Church Toledo
Justin Woodall Alabama

Overall Rank Free Safeties School
Eric Berry Tennessee
Taylor Mays USC
Earl Thomas Texas
Nate Allen South Florida
Major Wright Florida
Kam Chancellor Virginia Tech
Robert Johnson Utah
Terrell Skinner Maryland
Nick Polk Indiana
Van Eskridge East Carolina
Robert Vaughn Connecticut
Brad Phillips Northwestern