Each year, we like to run a series of posts called "90-in-90." The idea is that we'll take a look at every player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few ways. This roster will certainly change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not exactly 90 players in 90 days. At this point, it's a name we're keeping around for street cred.
Another offseason, another new starter at safety for the San Francisco 49ers. After moving on from Dashon Goldson and replacing him with first-round pick Eric Reid prior to the 2013 season, the 49ers will again be making a change to the back end of their defense in 2014. The team opted to let Donte Whitner – who had started at safety for the past three seasons – walk in free agency, choosing to fill his position with a cheaper veteran player, Antoine Bethea.
San Francisco signed Bethea to a four-year, $21 million contract on the second day of free agency. Prior to that, Bethea had spent his entire career in Indianapolis with the Colts. As I detailed shortly after Bethea signed back in March, the veteran safety profiles as a bit of a poor man's Whitner. He's an effective and willing run defender but can struggle changing direction and finding the ball in pass coverage.
Why he might improve:
In San Francisco, Bethea will be entering a situation that is far preferable to the one he was in up in Indianapolis. He will have a talented young safety next to him in Eric Reid and a front seven that shouldn't leave him exposed in coverage for an extended period of time. Bethea should also benefit from a coaching staff that has done a great job of putting players in the best position for them to succeed. With Carlos Rogers and Whitner, we've seen the 49ers integrate veteran players into their secondary and have success, at least for a short period of time. There's no reason to think that Bethea won't benefit from the same advantages that Rogers and Whitner were able to.
Why he might regress:
Age is probably the biggest concern for Bethea. He will turn 30 prior to the start of the season and if some of his athleticism were to leave, that wouldn't bode well for his upcoming season. Pass coverage was already the weakest aspect of his game, at least in 2013. Bethea gave up a number of big plays in the games I watched from last season and if he loses a step, it's possible we could see even more of that this season.
Odds of making the roster:
Bethea's contract is certainly not exorbitant, but he is being paid like a starter and it appears the 49ers expect him to be just that for at least the next couple of seasons. San Francisco drafted his potential replacement by selecting Jimmie Ward in the first round, but Ward can be a valuable piece as the nickel corner while the 49ers extract all of the remaining value out of Bethea at safety in the meantime. He's a lock to make the final 53-man roster this season and he'll be on the field for the 49ers opening defensive snap when the regular season rolls around.