Niners might consider 'making' a new safety

Sometimes in the NFL, in direct contradiction to the old saw, safeties are made, not born. Environment, or at least willingness to subscribe to the basic job description, occasionally trumps DNA at a position where roughly one-third of the league's teams appear to be seeking a starter for the 2011 season, a list that includes the 49ers after their shaky performance at the position last season.

For the first time since 2000, a safety, or at least a player widely projected to switch to the safety spot, was not selected in the first round of the 2011 draft. Only 20 safeties overall, the lowest total in several springs, were chosen. And so the several franchises who are admittedly looking for a starting safety or at least a No. 3 guy, 11 or 12 teams by the unofficial count, seem to be reliant on a free agency system that will be severely truncated at best, and might allow veterans changing teams a short transition period.

The 49ers finished the 2010 season with, at best, an unproven starting safety tandem in youngsters Reggie Smith and Dashon Goldson.

Smith started the final seven games of the year at strong safety after recording just one tackle defensively during his first two seasons with the team. Goldson started all 16 games at free safety for the second consecutive season, but his play-making production tailed off noticeably from 2009, when he had established himself as a rising talent at the position.

The 49ers finished the season with rookie Taylor Mays as their third safety, but Mays wasn't ready when he received an early shot at the starting lineup in October. The second-round pick started six consecutive games but was overmatched in coverage and played himself out of the lineup. He had just three tackles defensively in San Francisco's final seven games.

The 49ers are among several teams that could consider the possible alternative to investing significant money on a player who might not have sufficient time to learn a new system: Convert a cornerback from the current roster to safety.

"The (switch) isn't all that easy, but it can be done," allowed New Orleans free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who started 15 games for the Saints at the interior secondary spot in 2010 after having spent his '09 rookie campaign as a nickel cornerback. "There is a lot more (mentally) and responsibility-wise, and you've probably got to have the safety kind of mindset to do it ... but it is do-able."

And with the lockout, and the cram-course ramifications that it could present, it might be done more than usual this season.

There are 37 pending free-agent safeties with five or more seasons of experience, 21 of them with at least six years of NFL tenure. Several of them are prominent, at least in terms of name value, and a few are even former Pro Bowl defenders. But with the prospect of a condensed offseason, and with the steep learning curve requisite to the safety spot, the effectiveness of the group could be blunted.

Noted the general manager of one AFC team who figures to be shopping for a safety when the market eventually opens: "There are some decent players, but, like every position, maybe even more than some, you worry about the break-in period, and the effects of a shorter (transition) period."

Which isn't to suggest that safety-thin defensive coordinators will be poring over their rosters of incumbent defensive backs, trying to identify viable candidates for a switch to safety. A few, however, might do so.

The Houston Texans almost certainly won't have either of their 2010 starters, Eugene Wilson or Bernard Pollard, back in '11 from a secondary that statistically ranked as the NFL's worst last season. The Texans chose Keo Shiloh of Idaho in the fifth round and regard him as an immediate starter, but he might be joined by veteran Quin Glover, a cornerback the first two years of his career.

There are people in Cleveland who feel that nine-year veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown would be more effective moving inside at this juncture of his career. His new contract extension aside, it's probably just a matter of time until Denver 12-year veteran Champ Bailey, a 10-time Pro Bowl cornerback and potential future Hall of Fame member, goes to safety.

Some NFL personnel people feel that San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer will eventually make the move. Ronde Barber of Tampa Bay, arguably the best slot cornerback in the league in recent seasons, has for years been regarded as a safety candidate.

Even two of the NFL's premier young safeties, Eric Berry of Kansas City and Michael Griffin of Tennessee, played some cornerback in college. One of the reasons Texas defensive back Aaron Williams dropped to the second round last month was that there was disagreement about his best position; the Buffalo Bills probably will play Williams inside.

Time was when teams would move a player from corner to safety when he was older, and perhaps couldn't run and cover as well, but they wanted to take some advantage of his football acumen and ball-skills. That's still true in some cases – and was the case, for instances, in the latter stages of the career of Hall of Famer Rod Woodson – but some switches could be made because of the necessity of club needs.

The 49ers have that kind of need. There has been plenty of talk of the 49ers moving hard-hitting cornerback Nate Clements to safety after his coverage skills at the corner have eroded the past two seasons. Clements, a Pro Bowl selection in 2004 before the 49ers momentarily made him the highest-paid defender in NFL history during 2007 free agency, will have to take a considerable pay cut at any position to return to the 49ers, but he has a nose for the football (30 interceptions since 2002) and could find a career rebirth at safety for a team that needs to get better there.

"It's a lot of learning," Williams said before the draft, when asked about playing safety. "There's more than, like, 'OK, that's your guy and you've got him (man-to-man), no matter what.' There's a lot more involvement."

Because of that, the NFL isn't apt to witness a mass migration from cornerback to safety. Because of the lockout, though, there could be more movement from corner to safety than typically takes place in the league.

The 49ers recently added sixth-round draft pick Colin Jones to the mix at safety, but he's not expected to be starting material any time soon, and perhaps never. That leaves the position currently manned by two potential free agents – Goldson, who has been tendered as a restricted free agent, and C.J. Spillman, who has been tendered as an exclusive rights free agent – to go along Smith and Mays and two other youngsters whom the 49ers currently own the rights to, Curtis Taylor and Chris Maragos.

The 49ers used their third-round draft pick on South Carolina's Chris Culliver, who started 24 games at safety during his sophomore and junior seasons. But the Niners intend to play Culliver at cornerback, a position he played during his senior season last year, because they also need help at that position after allowing 25 touchdown passes last year and finishing 24th in the NFL in passing yards allowed.

So the 49ers should be open to the idea of "making" a safety this season if things fail to pan out with their other alternatives before the season approaches.


Niners Digest Top Stories