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Film breakdown: Should the 49ers re-sign Eric Reid?

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The 49ers have considerable depth at safety, but injuries have been a regular problem.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers’ front office face their toughest re-signing dilemma with strong safety/linebacker Eric Reid. Before the 2017 season, Reid was touted as a player likely to excel in the 49ers’ new scheme, playing the Kam Chancellor role closer to the LOS. When employed in that role, Reid did, for the most part, perform at a high level. He was named as the tenth best strong safety in the league by Bleacher Report, whilst receiving a solid 81.4 overall grade from PFF — good for the 29th best safety in the entire NFL.

The problem for Reid and the 49ers’ FO is that Reid’s rival at strong safety, Jaquiski Tartt, proved last season that he is a safety with the ability to transcend the “Kam Chancellor” role in this defense, offering his defensive co-ordinator a greater range of possibilities than Reid (and any other strong safety around the league in this scheme), especially in coverage. Tartt is incredibly effective as a man coverage defender as well as being able to operate as a deep center-fielder, whilst Tartt also showed greater ability in the running game and as a blitzer as he was able to beat blockers with surprising regularity. I will write a piece about him soon.

However, highlighting Tartt’s excellence is not to say that the 49ers should not seriously consider re-signing Reid. There is little doubt that Reid excels in certain facets of the game — a reason why the 49ers were keen to see if they could play Reid as a WILL linebacker when he, Tartt, and then-starting free safety Jimmie Ward were all healthy.

Reid’s re-signing would be predicated on him spending considerable time as a nickel and dime linebacker, potentially even spending the offseason once again adding bulk to be able to be the full time WILL linebacker, whilst also backing up Tartt at strong safety. The worst case scenario is that Reid generally plays between 60% and 70% of the defensive snaps each week, replacing presumed base down WILL linebacker Malcolm Smith in the more obvious passing situations when Reid is undoubtedly a better option that Smith.

The coverage responsibilities of the WILL linebacker (the position effectively filled by a smaller nickel/dime linebacker) are very similar to the strong safety in this scheme. If anything, the coverage responsibilities of the WILL suit Reid better than the wider repertoire asked of a strong safety. The WILL operates entirely in the short to intermediate areas of the field, primarily as a curl-flat zone defender on the weak side of the field, in addition to sometimes playing as a hook-zone defender or playing in man-coverage against a running back.

What does Reid do well?

The above things the WILL linebacker is primarily asked to do as a cover player. Yes, Reid is a limited player, but he excels in coverage in the curl-flats/seam-flats area of the field - particularly on the weak side. It’s worth considering that his two best demonstrations of his abilities were against Kansas City in preseason and an at-best second string Rams’ side in the season finale. Just as importantly however, was that Reid was asked, almost exclusively, to play in the curl-flats in those games. His closing speed is extremely impressive, and when paired with his solid open field tackling, ensures offenses struggle to generate any sort of yardage and yards-after-catch when throwing into Reid’s curl-flat zone, even when they try and stress him with levels concepts.

Playing man to man coverage (in the curl-flats region of the field), Reid (upper most player lined up on the 30) drives extremely quickly downhill, before making a dominant tackle to ensure Everett gets no YAC. This a third down, so Reid is deliberately playing further off Everett to ensure he’s not beaten for a first down.

Reid (second player from the bottom of the screen) is playing the curl-flats and he flashes his closing speed and tackling ability. He showed a good understanding of throwing lanes to get between Mannion and his outside WR, but was potentially baiting the quarterback into throwing to the running back. Reid backed up his baiting on this occasion but it can prove a problem as well.

Reid (second player from the top of the screen) again is playing the curl-flats, and though he is slightly slow to recognise the lack of threat coming into his zone, he still flashes the burst to get his hands on the throw to force an incompletion. Better recognition might have resulted in an interception however, and Reid’s recognition does sometimes cause him issues, particularly when deeper downfield where he has no help behind him.

Additionally, Reid is a useful hook zone or robber defender, where he once again shows the ability to read the play developing in front of him and puts himself in position to make the play. He is also a good enough man coverage defender to deal with most running backs in the NFL. Reid’s ability to play a range of cover roles in the short to intermediate areas of the field allows the 49ers to be flexible with their usage of both Reuben Foster and more importantly Tartt. It is primarily his strengths as a cover man that make Reid such an attractive re-signing to play as a cover-linebacker in passing situations. When his focus is in front of him, Reid is a missile.

Reid (lined up almost directly behind the right DT) is playing the hook zone here in cover 2 zone, and shows good awareness and eye discipline to identify the receiver running the drag and cover him. His acceleration here is impressive and a product of his footwork.

Reid (upper most player on the 50) operates as the robber here, as the underneath zone defender in a cover 1. Once again, he shows good eye discipline and recognition of the drag route, before driving on the ball. His presence forces the interception that resulted in Dontae Johnson’s pick 6.

Reid is also sufficiently effective as a run defender in the box, especially if he does just play in the 49ers’ nickel and dime packages. When employed as a linebacker on base downs there is little doubt that he struggled, but he flashes the decisiveness, ability to sift or work his way through traffic and tackling ability to be a useful run defender from the linebacker spot. An offseason adding a little more weight could also come in handy for Reid as he plays even more in the box than he would have been expected to do as a strong safety.

Reid (lined up on the 43) makes a really impressive play here. It’s especially impressive as it showed he had learned from earlier in the game, where he was successfully blocked down by the receiver on the same play call because he was indecisive. This time, Reid is decisive, beats the block, works underneath the pulling guard and makes the play on the back.

This play is designed to get Reid (standing at a normal WILL linebacker spot) one v one with the back. He shows fast recognition, closing well to meet Murray behind the LOS and corrals him despite his attempt to juke Reid.

This the most promising play from Reid against the run. He’s actually on the strong side of the defense and he doesn't have outside leverage when he meets the guard. Despite that, Reid uses his long arms to stack and shed, before bringing the back down. These sort of plays demonstrate his abilities as a run defender around the LOS.

Reid is also a useful blitzer, off the edge and as an A-gap blitzer. He possesses some pop behind his hands and has the explosiveness to challenge linemen, tight ends and backs to get their hands on him at the snap. His closing speed is his best asset, as when he’s given a run to the QB he invariably gets something on him.

Where does Reid struggle?

When Reid was at linebacker, he certainly had his struggles adjusting to being a touch closer to the LOS against the run than he had been at strong safety. Interestingly however, Robert Saleh also noted Reuben Foster was having similar struggles in being swamped by blockers and simply allowed Foster to line up slightly deeper before the snap. A similar approach could be employed in regards to Reid, but Reid does also have to improve on the consistency of his play recognition and the resultant decisiveness after the snap needed to beat blockers and make the play. This weakness is undoubtedly less of an issue if Reid is just used in nickel and dime, both because the opposition will generally be in smaller personnel packages and because they are less likely to run the ball.

However, the primary reason that Reid was beaten out by Tartt at strong safety is because he lacks’ the former Samford Bulldogs’ coverage abilities and versatility. Reid noticeably struggled in man to man coverage against tight ends, and was rarely used in the deeper roles that Tartt was used in. He lacks the recovery ability of Tartt which certainly impacts on his usefulness as a man coverage or deep zone coverage player but this is merely indicative of the difference in the movement skills of each player. Tartt moves absurdly well for a player his size - much more like a cornerback - whilst Reid shows less fluidity with his movements. This is a major reason behind the differences in coverage ability of each player.

Reid (#35 on the left of the image) absolutely whiffs on the TE on this play. He has a tendency to get flat footed in coverage and allow his feet to get outside his shoulders, something that happens on the LOS and when he’s playing further away. This takes away his ability to push off and accelerate.

Reid (#35) gets caught flat footed and once agains lets his feet get outside his shoulders because of Walker’s slight change of pace. He needed to keep his feet under him and try and get his hands on Walker.

This is a poor play by Reid (bottom player lined up on the 35). He appears to be trying to bait Mannion into passing to the tight end and essentially gifts the Rams a third and short. He should have been all over the tight end here and this is where his baiting and playmaking mindset causes him issues.

Reid (#35) decides not to press the TE (Tartt is a much better press coverage defender) and is outrun across the field, partly because he once again lets his feet get slightly outside his shoulders. This should have been a third down converting pass to the TE.

So should the 49ers re-sign him?

These coverage struggles are clearly reasons why the 49ers might be willing to move on from Eric Reid. He could certainly go and be a starter somewhere, but that team will have to be wary of his limitations. To bring the best out of Reid he will need to be used in a fairly restricted way - as I have outlined above. He can’t be utilized too often as a deep cover man in two-high safety looks and using him in single high looks should be avoided if possible. Furthermore, Reid shouldn't be required to play man coverage against too many tight ends on a consistent basis.

It would seem that playing primarily as a nickel and dime linebacker might actually be the best move for Reid at this point in his career. He is an extremely high caliber option as a short and intermediate zone coverage defender and has the man cover skills to handle most running backs. Reid can also function well enough in two high safety looks which would allow the 49ers to run two-high safety plays whilst bringing Tartt closer to the LOS. These traits are enough to make him an incredibly attractive rotational piece next season.

I expect Reid to hit the open market to at least test the waters, but his protest could potentially limit his possible suitors. Unlike his good friend Colin Kaepernick, Reid flashes elite abilities in a couple of areas, but he is still a limited player.

Coming back to San Francisco, a team that has supported Reid and would have a clearly defined role that would allow Reid to excel would, in my opinion, be a win-win for everyone involved. A one or two year contract might be the most likely scenario, as Reid looks to further boost his stock, but this would be a worthwhile investment for San Francisco, leaving them set at off-ball linebacker and safety for at least the next season or two. This also gives Reid another chance to hit free agency when he’s 27 or 28.

Reid would be a crucial figure in their nickel and dime defenses as well as potentially being able to add some more bulk and become an every down contributor. Additionally, if Tartt or Adrian Colbert were to get hurt, the 49ers would be safe in the knowledge that they had some high caliber depth across their safeties, with Reid a more than capable (if slightly limiting) strong safety. If I was running the 49ers’ front office, I would be keen to bring Reid back.