A Big Question at Safety

Donte Whitner (Getty Images)

The 49ers saw solid play from their safeties in 2013 backing the league's No. 3 scoring defense. But headed into the offseason, Donte Whitner's free agency could have a drastic impact on standout rookie Eric Reid. As we go into position-by-position breakdowns in coming weeks, we start with a look at San Francisco's safeties. (FREE PREVIEW OF PREMIUM CONTENT)

The San Francisco 49ers entered the season with one big hole on defense after free agent Dashon Goldson departed to get a $41.25 million deal with Tampa Bay. Armed with 13 picks in last year's draft, GM Trent Baalke elected to move up to No. 18 and take All-American safety Eric Reid of LSU in a draft-day trade with the Cowboys. It worked out well for the 49ers, as Reid started all 19 games and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate for his role on the league's third-ranked scoring defense.

Reid was paired with eight-year veteran Donte Whitner, a pending free agent, who had a Pro-Bowl year in his own right. Going forward, San Francisco faces a tough situation given the current salary structure and Whitner's potential value on the open market. The 49ers have until March 8 to negotiate with their own free agents before they can begin talking to other suiters.

"(Whitner's) been my mentor coming in the NFL," Reid said. "He gives that player's point of view. I couldn't have asked for a better guy to set the tone for my career."

The 49ers could elect to franchise Whitner, which would likely cost in the $6-8 million range for next season. A long-term deal seems less likely given the front office's unwillingness to offer a similar contract to Goldson, who was franchised for $6.2 million in his final year with the team in 2012. Whitner will be 29 next season while the free agent pool is deep at the position. They could elect to for a cheaper short-term fix by looking at a free agent or drafting another safety early.

One idea worth considering is moving Reid to strong safety and finding a free safety to replace Whitner. Reid was the only safety on the roster that took reps exclusively at free safety and coordinator Vic Fangio has liked his safeties to be able to play both in the past. Having learned the responsibilities of free safety would ease the transition for Reid and allow him to spend the offseason learning to play the other side with relative ease.

Reid suffered two concussions this season, one in Week 2 against the Seahawks and another Week 10 versus the Panthers. But he did not miss a start.

Whitner - winner of the Garry Niver Award for the second time since 2011 for his handling of the media - was an integral part of Reid's development from first-round pick to starter this season. Reid played well beyond his years and Whitner had a lot to do with it.

"That'd be huge for me," Reid said when asked about Whitner returning next season. "If you go back through the archives and look at all the interviews I've done this year, I've always given him and the coaching staff the credit for molding me as a rookie. I honestly can say I don't think I could have played as well as I did this year without him and Coach Donatell and Coach Jackson."

Reid went the entire season without committing a penalty. Goldson, however, was flagged for six personal fouls, incurred a reported $190,000 in fines and lost a game check worth $264,705 after getting suspended. Unlike Goldson, Reid's form tackling stood out from the very beginning of the season, even though he made a habit of taking bad angles early on.

Whitner spent much of the season arguing with officials about the league's evolving stance on hits to defenseless receivers. He improved his tackling fundamentals dramatically from last year, but didn't shy away from the big hit. He was flagged for five unnecessary roughness penalties, but wasn't fined for any of his hits after league review.

"I talked to Coach Harbaugh, talked to Vic Fangio, Ed Donatell," Whitner said. "I talked to everybody, and everybody expresses they want me back. But you know, this is a business. Sometimes players don't fit into what you want to do salary-cap-wise. So I'm not saying that's the case here. Hopefully we can get something done and work something out. But we'll see."

Whitner became a minor sideshow midway through the season when he announced he filed paperwork is his native Ohio to change his name to Hitner and began selling "Legal Hitner" shirts in protest of the unnecessary roughness calls that went against him.

That aside, Whitner improved his cover skills dramatically from the previous year when he allowed 12 touchdowns in coverage (including the postseason), according to Pro Football Focus. This year he allowed just two in 2013 which bodes well for his chances at earning top dollar in the free agent market. Whitner's always been good in run support, although he has a habit of going for the hit instead of wrapping up the ball carrier.

"You have to go based on what the player brings to the team, brings to the defense, brings to the offense," Whitner said. "You have to go based on, is this guy a team leader or is he just one of the guys? You go based on the player's worth. So we'll see what happens."

Whitner allowed quarterbacks to complete 26 of 50 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns when targeting him in coverage, good for a 61.8 quarterback rating. Quarterbacks had a 130.6 rating when targeting him in 2012. He had three interceptions on the year, including a game-sealer late in the Divisional Round win in Carolina.

Reid's numbers were equally impressive, especially for a rookie. He finished second on the team with four interceptions, including a pair in his first two games as a pro against the Packers and Seahawks. He allowed just two touchdowns in coverage on the season and was third on the defense with 73 tackles.

The 49ers brought Craig Dahl in during the offseason to add depth and compete with Reid for the starting job. He played 89 snaps on defense with 43 coming in Seattle Week 2 after Reid left with a concussion. He was a regular contributor on special teams alongside the other reserve safeties C.J. Spillman and Bubba Ventrone.

Going forward the 49ers have to feel good about what they saw out of Reid in his first season. But Whitner's pending free agency puts the team in a corner. It's doing everything it can to stay as far underneath the salary cap as possible with Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati due for free agency following next season. Bringing back both Anquan Boldin and Whitner doesn't seem financially plausible under those restrictions.

Safeties Under Contract for 2014

Eric Reid

Craig Dahl

C.J. Spillman

Bubba Ventrone

D.J. Campbell

Here's a list of Scout.com's rankings of 2014 draft prospects at safety.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

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