Training camp battleground: Free safety

The return of Dashon Goldson has made things interesting for the 49ers at free safety, where they have a logjam of veterans with starting experience to go along with some youngsters who made the team last year. Goldson's back practicing with the first-team defense in training camp this week, but that doesn't necessarily mean the team's new coaching staff is just going to hand him the starting job.

This is how the training camp competition currently breaks down at the position:

2010 starter: Dashon Goldson (all 16 games)
The veteran: Reggie Smith
The newcomer: Madieu Williams
The youngsters: Curtis Taylor, Chris Maragos, C.J. Spillman, Taylor Mays.

There wouldn't be much question regarding who San Francisco's starting free safety will be this year if Goldson had accepted the team's offer in July to make him the 49ers' highest-paid free agent of 2011.

The Niners reportedly were willing to give Goldson more than the five-year, $20 million deal they awarded defensive end Ray McDonald to remain with the team, but Goldson was looking for something bigger, and he believed there were teams out there who would give it to him.

When the calendar turned to August and an agreement with Goldson had not been reached, the 49ers started looking at other options. They signed Williams, a seven-year veteran, to a one-year deal on Aug. 3. Then the Niners cleared up any uncertainty regarding who would be their starting strong safety when they signed free agent Donte Whitner to a three-year, $11.75 million deal on Aug. 6.

That seemed to spell the end to Goldson's career in San Francisco, and Goldson even indicated as much when he posted on his twitter account on Aug. 4, the day news first broke of San Francisco's agreement with Whitner, "Sorry guys thanx for all ur support but not gonna be back. See ya"

But then the market for Goldson remained soft. And then Reggie Smith, the starting strong safety for San Francisco's final seven games last year who got off to a strong start in training camp as the first-unit free safety, suffered a knee injury on Aug. 6, the first day Smith was paired with Whitner in practice.

And just like that, Goldson was back with the 49ers the next week with a one-year deal that brings him back for a season that surely will serve as another audition for the big contract he didn't get this year.

And just like that, the 49ers have some serious competition at free safety, where Goldson will have to earn the starting job that has belonged to him for San Francisco's previous 32 regular-season games.

"Iron sharpens iron," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I feel good with the talent in the secondary and I think (Goldson's return) really makes the competition all that much better."

There's competition all right, after Williams and the first-team defense played well in New Orleans, sending quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints to three consecutive three-and-out series to start the game. Williams had a shot at a sure interception on Brees' final pass attempt, a deep ball over the middle, but Williams let the ball slip through his hands even though he seemed to time his leap properly.

That play gave a visual of Williams' ability to play center field, which is what the Niners really need from their free safety in new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 system. Williams may be a better fit for that role than Goldson, who has good range but did not make any significant improvements as a cover safety last year during his up-and-down 2010 season.

Williams likely wouldn't even have been on the field at the point of the game if not for the injury to Smith, who could miss a few more weeks with a torn MCL but should return to the safety competition by the end of this month. Smith had been performing well and was staking a strong claim to the starting position before the injury. He also may be better than Goldson as a true coverage free safety.

Harbaugh said the Niners still would have signed Goldson even if Smith hadn't been injured, but the team would have had less inclination to do so had Smith not gone down.

Goldson knew of the competition upgrade he'd be facing to keep his job before he decided to rejoin the 49ers, and the 26-year-old says bring it on.

"They're trying to add to this football team," Goldson said. "They bring in talented guys every year, and you've got to prove yourself ever year. It's a lot of good competition. That's what you need to come out here and do. You have to prove yourself week in and week out. They're not going to give it to you."

But it appears that the 49ers would like to see Goldson immediately take it, and coaches are giving him every chance to do that by moving him to the front of the line on the depth chart. It's certainly a spot that Goldson became accustomed to in the past.

During his first extended session with the first unit during Sunday's practice at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Goldson was very feisty in coming up for contact in team drills, looking like he'd finally been let out of a cage after so many months without an organized practice setting.

He certainly brings an element as a ferocious hitter that the 49ers won't get from other candidates. Goldson can be equal parts ball-hawk and headhunter, and there aren't many defenses that wouldn't like a player like that watching its back.

If Goldson can remain disciplined and handle the position's new coverage responsibilities, he should be able to hold onto his starting job. If not, the 49ers will look at their other options – options that also can offer the team quality and experience.

The 49ers also have an interesting situation developing at the position with a group of youngsters behind those top three veterans.

Though none of them currently are in the mix to compete for the starter's role, Curtis Taylor and Chris Maragos both saw action on the 53-man roster last year and offer certain strengths. C.J. Spillman and Taylor Mays – two other young veterans who were on the roster last season, when Mays made six starts at strong safety as a rookie – also have seen some snaps this summer at free safety.

Those four players figure to be fighting it out for the final roster berths at safety while the veterans ahead of them battle for the starting job.

The edge: Goldson. There would have been no point in the 49ers re-signing Goldson – even to a one-year deal – if they did not expect him to step right back into his previous starting role. Goldson wouldn't be a happy camper on the bench, and he has a lot of motivation to get back to his 2009 level as a player. His aggressiveness fits the attitude of the team's defensive approach, and he's the most talented player the 49ers have at free safety. That should be enough to allow Goldson to hold off the competition he'll face until the 49ers make their starting choices in early September.

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