Camp preview: get to know 49ers safeties

The 49ers last line of defense might be their strongest position on the roster. We break down their group of safeties, and list some potential variables that could change the status quo significantly with training camp starting this week.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Safety is one of the few positions which the San Francisco 49ers plan on fielding the same starters as they did last season.

Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea might form the best positional duo on the roster, giving San Francisco a last line of defense they can rely on. But will they be good enough to lead a defense that’s loaded with question marks?

Last year, the 49ers led the NFL with 23 interceptions, with Reid netting three after getting four in his rookie season in 2013, when he reached the Pro Bowl. Bethea notched four in his first season since joining San Francisco as a free agent, before earning team MVP honors. It might have been Bethea’s best season as a pro, which is saying something, considering his how well he played during his previous eight years with the Indianapolis Colts.

Bethea posted career highs in interceptions (4) and passes defended (10). He turned out to be a great fit in place of Donte Whitner, who signed a far more lucrative contract with the Cleveland Browns after three very good seasons with the 49ers. But unlike Whitner, Bethea wasn’t a penalty magnet. He went the entire year without getting flagged, while Whitner was hit with seven personal fouls in 2013, including five for unnecessary roughness.

The ability to plug Bethea into the lineup and get arguably more production than Whitner is a credit to the coaching staff as much as Bethea. Former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell were instrumental during their tenures with the 49ers, dealing with constant turnover in personnel year in and year out. It will be a significant test for both Bethea and Reid to maintain their levels of play in Eric Mangini’s new defense, that promises to be more aggressive and require more of its safeties.

After using a first-round pick on Reid in 2013, general manager Trent Baalke used a second-consecutive first-round pick on a safety last spring, taking Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois with the 30th-overall selection. Ward became the team’s starting nickel corner in Week 1, after the team let veteran standout Carlos Rogers walk in free agency.

Ward went on to start eight games before sustaining his second Jones fracture in his foot in as many years that ended his season prematurely. His first was discovered during his pre-draft process, but didn’t prevent Baalke from taking a chance on the play-making safety.

Many will remember Ward’s tough game in Week 2, the first game ever played in Levi’s Stadium, when he surrendered three touchdowns to the Bears’ five-time Pro-Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall. In his seven other games, according to Pro Football Focus, Ward was targeted 20 times, and allowed one touchdown against the Saints in the game which he suffered the fracture.

Considering he was tasked with playing the secondary’s toughest position as a rookie, getting targeted just 20 times in the slot meant Ward was doing his job in coverage. Before his injury, Ward was establishing a nice foundation for his career with the 49ers. But going forward, his health will be his biggest concern. He will need to gain weight, having played at 193 pounds as a rookie, which might put his foot at further risk.

49ers safeties on 90-man roster

Antoine Bethea (5-11, 206)
Craig Dahl (6-1, 212)
L.J. McCray (6-0, 210)
Eric Reid (6-1, 213)
Jacquiski Tartt (6-1, 221)
Jermaine Whitehead (5-11, 193)

Here's what we know about the safety battles heading into training camp:

—Barring injury, the starting positions are locked up. Reid and Bethea oversaw the league’s sixth-ranked passing defense last season. But they will be responsible for helping out a new pair of starting corners after Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox bolted in free agency. Fangio’s scheme was considered relatively vanilla by NFL standards, not putting the secondary in many compromising positions. But under Mangini, the 49ers figure to play straight up less often, leaving the field unbalanced. The new aggressive style could lead to more big plays, but it could also mean more risk. Reid and Bethea will have their hands full avoiding those compromising situations.

—Ward’s injury prevented him from participating in the offseason program for the second straight season. But he wasn’t put on an injury list to open training camp, which says he should be a full go once the practice starts Aug. 1. With Ward out last year, Cox and Dontae Johnson saw the most time at the slot corner/nickel position. If Ward is healthy, San Francisco will need him to build on his experience as a rookie and become a mainstay on a defense that lost so much talent in the offseason.

—Tartt, a second-round pick this spring, will be an interesting player to monitor in 2015. Barring injury, he isn’t likely to get much time on the back end of the defense. But he could be inserted in dime situations as a sixth defensive back. At 221 pounds, he’s easily the team’s biggest safety, and could be used both to cover and fill lanes against the run. He looks like a good fit in goal-line situations. In college, Tartt played fast and hit hard, putting him on track to eventually replace Bethea, who recently turned 31. Also, Tartt has the tools to become an instant-impact player on special teams.

—Last season, including Ward, San Francisco kept five safeties on the opening day roster. Assuming Reid, Bethea, Ward and Tartt are locks, that means there could be a heated competition between Craig Dahl, L.J. McCray and undrafted free agent Jermaine Whitehead for a final spot. Both McCray and Dahl were on the roster in 2014, making their contributions mostly on special teams. Dahl was called upon late in the year to replace Reid after sustaining a concussion in December’s loss to the San Diego Chargers. And for the second straight offseason, Dahl restructured his contract to make it more palatable. Otherwise, McCray might have distanced himself in the competition by being a younger and cheaper option.

—Speaking of Reid’s concussion, it was the third in his two seasons in the NFL. Considering the climate of the league - and the 49ers, specifically - Reid will be under the microscope this year. Anthony Davis and Chris Borland both cited head trauma when stepping away this offseason, leaving Reid as the next possible candidate should he suffer another significant blow to the head. He’s only 23, and said this offseason he thought about his long-term future in relation to his concussions, but later refuted the idea he was strongly considering retirement. The 49ers need a contingency plan in place, which will likely reveal itself in training camp. How many reps will Ward get at free safety at the price of his work at nickel? Will Tartt learn both free and strong safety? Will they keep Dahl around as insurance given his experience? Reid’s situation will be a variable that impacts everyone at the position.

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