Moreover, two of the 49ers' free-agent pickups, safeties Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams, nearly intercepted Brees passes. And Williams likely will be a backup at free safety to Dashon Goldson, who joined the team last last week and didn't play in the exhibition opener.
Whitner, who will play close to the line of scrimmage this season, jumped a route in the flat to break up a pass from Brees. Williams, meanwhile, mistimed his leap on a deep pass from Brees to wideout Robert Meachem. If he hadn't, he would have had an easy pick. Williams was in position but the ball went right through his hands.
Another free-agent acquisition, cornerback Carlos Rogers, also played well. The early returns are that he is a more nimble and certainly faster cornerback than the starting cornerback he replaces, Nate Clements.
Goldson might have been San Francisco's best defensive back over the past two years, and certainly last year when the entire secondary had a slip in performance over the previous season. Goldson was back as the regular free safety with the first team during Sunday's practice at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, promising to give the team a dynamic safety tandem when paired with Whitner.
The Niners also got some good news Sunday when cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Tarell Brown both returned to practice after missing much of the previous week with injuries. Spencer, who started all 16 games each of the past two seasons at left cornerback, is listed as the starter on the right side on team's first depth chart of 2011 that was released last week.
The 49ers are opting this year to work Rogers at left cornerback, which is typically where teams place their top coverage corner. Rogers appears to be the only corner locked in as a starter as of today as the 49ers continue to look at their options on the other side, where second-year veteran Tramaine Brock started against the Saints. Brock remained with the first unit in Sunday's practice.
Brown also was challenging for a starting position and getting a lot of first-team reps before going down last week. Brown looked healthy upon his return Sunday and also blocked a field goal during a situational drive, exhibiting his value to the 49ers on special teams, where he was one of San Francisco's top performers last year. Brown ranked fourth on the team with 267 points last year in a system used to identify San Francisco's top producers on those units.
The 49ers also are seeing almost daily progress from third-round draft pick Chris Culliver, one of their more physical and athletic defensive backs who is moving back to corner after playing mostly safety last season at South Carolina. Even second-year veteran Phillip Adams, a surprise contributor last year as a seventh-round draft pick, is displaying signs he could be a factor in the secondary this year after returning from a devastating ankle injury that ended his rookie season in December.
Niners waive Thaddeus Gibson
The 49ers placed second-year veteran Thaddeus Gibson on waivers Monday as the team begins paring down its roster to hone in the competition at specific positions.
Gibson, a fourth-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, was claimed off waivers after Pittsburgh released him last November and he spent the remainder of the season on San Francisco's 53-man roster, seeing action in the season's final two games.
Gibson was expected to challenge for one of the reserve roles at outside linebacker this year, but he has been passed in the rotation by newcomer Antwan Applewhite. The 49ers also wants to give more of a look at the position to undrafted rookies Monte Simmons and Kenny Rowe, who made a spectacular play on special teams against the Saints when he blocked a punt and recovered it himself on the run. Rowe did not get official credit for the play, which was nullified by a penalty on the 49ers.
Mays still trade bait
The 49ers continue to shop safety Taylor Mays, the team's second-round draft pick last year.
The big free safety played in the second half Friday against the Saints and had a solid, if unspectacular, performance. The 49ers are hoping to pick up an extra draft pick for Mays, which could make them more apt to make a deal for a veteran quarterback.
But for now, Mays remains a 49er, continuing his training camp ritual of practicing with the reserve defensive units.
"Taylor is a 49er, and he is competing out there in practice and in games, special teams, secondary, competing for a starting spot, competing for a spot to contribute in both of those phases. He's responded well to it, and he's an example of a guy getting better as well. Attitude-wise, work ethic-wise, it's been very positive."
--- The 49ers swapped one Yale tight end for another when they released Chris Blohm and signed veteran Nate Lawrie to take his place. Lawrie (6-foot-6, 255 pounds) was originally drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the sixth round of the 2004 NFL draft and has played in 26 games with five starts with the Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals. He also has spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore. Lawrie, 29, spent the past two seasons in the United Football League with the California Redwoods and Sacramento Mountain Lions, recording 26 receptions for 252 yards.
--- Undrafted rookie tight end Konrad Reuland has been impressive in practice, catching everything that's thrown in his direction, including several passes he's had to dig out of traffic. He's competing for the third tight end spot and is getting a long look with the 49ers from some of the same coaches he played for last season at Stanford University.
--- Undrafted rookie defensive end Demarcus Dobbs stood out against the Saints. The University of Georgia product tied for the team lead with four unassisted tackles. Dobbs has excellent height (6-foot-6) and long arms but needs to add strength. He appears to be a good candidate for the practice squad.
--- Wide receiver Michael Crabtree walked around the team facility Monday in sneakers, the first time the third-year veteran hasn't been seen wearing a protective boot on his injured foot since training camp began. Crabtree still is on the original four-to-six weeks rehabilitation timetable and is likely to miss all of the preseason for a third straight season. But he could return to practice by the end of the month and is expected to be ready for the Sept. 11 season opener against Seattle.
--- "He's got to improve his technique He's behind as a blitzer from a know-how standpoint and just from technique right now. He needs to really improve what happens when a back steps up to block him, how to beat that block. He's behind right now on that, but he knows that and he's working diligently, both on and off the field, to try and improve that." – Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio offering a rare critique of Patrick Willis, who will be rushing the quarterback more this year than he has in the past. Willis had a career-high six sacks last season, which ranked second on the team.
--- "If you watch NFL games, I almost feel like the receivers are becoming bored. ... They may get two or three balls thrown to them in a game." – Harbaugh, who says he wants to make the wide receiver position "relevant" again, particularly for a San Francisco team that has had a wideout top 60 receptions in a season just once in the past seven years. Six of San Francisco's 11 receptions were recorded by wide receivers in Friday's exhibition opener.