The 2015 season saw starting free safety Eric Reid play terribly for the first time in his short career. Reid, a player who has worked out very well for the San Francisco 49ers since they made him their first-round pick in 2013. But last season he hit a wall, and he hit it hard.
He looked tentative, he looked slow, he took poor angles and he missed tackles. The drop-off was so dramatic that I legitimately thought I was remembering wrong before writing this article, and went back to watch again just to confirm that he was, in fact, as bad as he was.
To make things even more distressing, strong safety Antoine Bethea sustained a season-ending injury after seven games and the 49ers were rolling with Jaquiski Tartt, a rookie, and Reid. Right out of the gate, Tartt was somewhat underwhelming, but I was a big fan of him in college and eventually, he started to play well.
In the end, Tartt played well enough to convince some that the 49ers should part ways with an aging Bethea. I'm not there yet myself, and think Bethea has played at a high enough level that the 49ers shouldn't abandon him after one injury. Tartt is in the conversation though, and that's important.
Before we go any further, we're going to take a quick look at the top safeties in the upcoming draft, because I do think there is room for another safety even if it's not specifically a need.
- Jalen Ramsey (Florida State)
- Keanu Neal (Florida)
- Karl Joseph (West Virginia)
- Vonn Bell (Ohio State)
- Darian Thompson (Boise State)
- Jeremy Cash (Duke)
- James Bradberry (Samford)
- K.J. Dillon (West Virginia)
- T.J. Green (Clemson)
- Tyvis Powell (Ohio State)
- Miles Killebrew (Southern Utah)
- Jalen Mills (LSU)
- Jayron Kearse (Clemson)
- Jordan Lucas (Penn State)
- DeAndre Houston-Carson (Williams & Mary)
- Deon Bush (Miami)
- Kevin Byard (Middle Tennessee)
- A.J. Stamps (Kentucky)
- Jamal Golden (Georgia Tech)
- LaDarrell McNeil (Tennessee)
Again, I'm not sure the 49ers need to draft another safety this season, but it certainly couldn't hurt. Tartt looked better in his short time than anybody expected given he was supposed to be very raw. Jimmie Ward showed some serious promise at cornerback last season as well, making special teamer L.J. McCray the only other safety of note on the roster.
Presumably, if Tartt starts at the strong safety spot, then Bethea would be released. But if Bethea is the starter, then Tartt would fill the backup spot and I'd guess he'd be the primary guy to come in at free safety behind Reid as well.
But again, it couldn't hurt to have a primary backup at free safety, and if you are a big believer in Tartt, then he could be the backup there too, with Bethea released.
As far as the specific guys, I wouldn't want the 49ers to use a first- or second-round pick on a safety, but in the third and later there are some interesting names. Bradberry is one guy who caught my eye, and notably he comes out of Samford. He's a small-school guy, coming from the same place as Tartt, and is also notable because he is listed as both a cornerback and safety by most experts.
I like his skillset at both, and think he could be a better cover safety than the guys the 49ers currently have on the roster. Cash is a tackling machine and fits the bill with the fast-charging, hard-hitting safeties that the 49ers like and have liked in recent years. Green is intriguing to me, but he's awfully raw. Mills sustained a serious leg injury in August so Trent Baalke would probably love him.
Anybody catch your eye?