Here at Niners Nation, we're presenting a series called "90-in-90". We'll be looking at every player on the San Francisco 49ers offseason roster, one player per post, from now until the start of training camp.
The 49ers safety position battle has been front and center as Eric Reid looks to earn the starting spot opposite Donte Whitner. The 49ers also signed Craig Dahl to compete for safety time, but it is easy to overlook C.J. Spillman in this position competition.
Spillman has developed primarily as a special teams weapon in his time with the 49ers. He originally signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent, and spent 2009 with them. Spillman played in five games as a rookie, and then appeared in five games in 2010 before being waived after Week 5. The 49ers claimed Spillman at that point, and he made special teams appearances the rest of the season. In 2011, he continued his special teams role, but also started getting some time in goal line and short yardage situations. His most notable play on defense that season was probably his stop of Ray Rice on Thanksgiving on 2nd and goal at the one yard line.
In that 2011 season, Spillman got 16 snaps on defense. In 2012, he saw 27 snaps on defense. The team would seem comfortable with him in some of these situations, but was not prepared to expand his role. He got some first team snaps with the secondary in early 2011 training camp, and he has rotated in on first team snaps during this year's offseason workout program. It is entirely possible he'll get some first team snaps this training camp, but it seems likely that Eric Reid and Donte Whitner will be your starting safeties as we head into the 2013 season.
While Spillman can hit big as needed on special teams, there is a bit more nuance to working as a safety with the starting defense. Barrows mentioned it earlier this offseason, and you can even get that sense going back to a scouting report when he was draft eligible.
Why he could improve in 2013
More than anything, it is a matter of getting an opportunity at more playing time. He got some first team snaps before Dashon Goldson signed his one-year deal in 2011, but that ended when Goldson returned. Now, he is getting another shot at first team snaps, but Eric Reid remains nearby looking to snap up that first team job. Given Spillman's time in the 49ers defense, his best chance at claiming the starting role, or even just more time in the 49ers DB-heavy defenses, would be to step up from day one.
And maybe, entering year five, it all comes together. If he were to improve in 2013, it would be because of that. And it does not necessarily mean that happens at free safety. Donte Whitner is entering his final season under contract, and faces plenty of criticism about his play last season. What if Spillman were able to show he could handle Whitner's thumper and garbage man role a bit better? I think Whitner is a pretty sizable favorite to retain the strong safety job, but you never know what training camp and the preseason could bring.
Why he could regress in 2013
While the lights could all come on in year five, we also could be looking at a guy who has peaked with what he can do in the NFL. There is no shame in being a strong special teams performer. I don't think he would be looking so much at regression, as just continuing to settle in with his role of special teams leader. At some point it will cost him a roster spot because the team will look to get cheaper at the spot through the draft or an undrafted free agent, but for now, I think it's fine.
Odds of making the roster
Spillman has strong odds of making the roster, but I'd stop just short of lock if he does not step up in one of the safety roles. If he is going to be primarily a special teams player, there is always the chance a cheaper option presents itself. I don't think there are enough of them this year, but it's always possible. Nonetheless, I expect him on the roster in 2013.