With the draft in the 49ers' rear view we have our first opportunity to preview brewing training camp battles. In our first installment of our Training Camp Spotlight series, we break down the team's talented group of safeties competing for playing time and roster spots come training camp.
SAFETIES CURRENTLY ON THE 90-MAN ROSTER:
James McCray (R)
Jimmie Ward (R)
Bethea (FA Indianapolis Colts, 4 yrs/$21 million)
Ward (2014 Draft, Round 1)
McCray (Undrafted free agent)
Campbell (Future contract)
The 49ers' starting safety tandem of Whitner and former first-round pick Reid was very productive, registering a combined six interceptions and three fumble recoveries during the regular season. After losing All-Pro Dashon Goldson in free agency, the 49ers had a huge void to fill and did so by moving up 13 slots in the first round of the 2013 draft to take Reid out of LSU.
As expected, Reid earned the starting job Week 1 and even a spot in the Pro Bowl for an outstanding rookie season. Reid was graded as Pro Football Focus' No. 16 safety for 2013 after playing 1,003 snaps. His four interceptions were tied for the third-most among others at the position. The next penalty Reid commits will be his first as a pro.
There's little doubt 2013 was Whitner's best season since getting taken No. 8 overall in the 2006 draft by the Bills. After struggling in coverage late in the previous season, he showed drastic improvement. For the year Whitner allowed 26 completions on 50 targets (50-percent completion rate) and a pair of touchdowns. In 2012, he allowed 42 of 54 (78 percent) and 12 TDs, including a pair in the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens.
Whiter's improved cover skills didn't come without a hitch, however. Last season he was called for seven personal foul penalties after getting two in 2011 and 2012 combined. Six stemmed from big hits while one was a taunting penalty of Marshawn Lynch. His social media and t-shirt campaigns likely didn't help his standing with league officials when it came to giving out 15-yard penalties.
As well as the Whitner and Reid played together throughout most of the regular season and the playoffs, they might have had their worst collective showing of the year in the NFC Championship Game. They combined to allow three catches for 86 of Russell Wilson's 215 yards passing. They also over pursued on Lynch's 40-yard, game-tying touchdown in the third quarter.
Ward's Role: The 49ers believe Ward will come in and compete right away for the nickel corner job. Carlos Rogers' departure leaves a big opening at nickel, a position needed for roughly 60 percent of defensive snaps. That means Ward will likely have double duty as he tries to learn to play corner in the slot as well as learn both safety positions to become the eventual replacement to Bethea, who turns 30 at the start of training camp. Ward's plate will be very full, but he appears up for the challenge.
Reid's Development: Reid played very well in 2013, but will be expected to take big steps towards becoming one of the league's premier players at the position. The biggest challenge will be overcoming the loss of Whitner, who was instrumental in his development and ascension to the starting lineup as a rookie. Bethea is an experienced veteran but will be new to the system. It's also worth pointing out Reid was the only safety on the team last season to learn the free safety position exclusively. Vic Fangio has said before he likes his safeties to be interchangeable, so expect Reid to get a lot of run at strong safety both during camp and the regular season. It might be his best long-term fit with Ward (5'11", 193 pounds) expected to take over at free safety in the coming seasons.
Bethea's New Territory: The metrics from 2013 don't speak too highly of Bethea. PFF's grades said Bethea was the league's 53rd-best safety thanks in part to a -4.9 grade for the year in pass coverage. Playing on the Colts' defense that ranked No. 22 in yards allowed per game probably didn't help - and he's assured to have a much better cast around him in San Francisco. Bethea will be 30 in July and five years removed from his Pro Bowl season of 2009. Trent Baalke and Co. have hit on just about every major move they've made in the secondary over the last three seasons so there's plenty of reason to believe Bethea will improve on 2013 and be a very good player on the team's defense. Perhaps the addition of Ward will provide extra motivation for the nine-year veteran to remain productive. If not that, then it's earning the maximum $21 million of the contract he signed to join the team.
Locks: Reid, Bethea and Ward. These players are the team's top three safeties and will be key players on defense throughout the entire season. Ward and Reid will also likely be asked to play special teams.
Nothing's assured but looking good: Ventrone, Spillman. These guys were key players on a vastly improved special teams unit in 2013. Look for them both to make the team, but they will have to earn it with the influx of Ward and Dahl looking to remain in the picture in his reserve role.
On the bubble: Dahl, McCray, Campbell. Dahl stepped in and played well in Reid's absence after leaving two games last year with a concussion in 2013 and also contributed on special teams. The first sign of being on the bubble came when he was asked to restructure his contract in February taking $525,000 less than his projected salary of $1.35 million. Dahl turns 29 June 7. The addition of Ward certainly doesn't help his chances of making the team. When it comes to reserves, the 49ers have shown they are willing to keep the better players on special teams if they believe there isn't much difference to their levels of production on defense. McCray and Campbell will compete to stick around but are simply on the wrong side of the numbers game.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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