Safety precautions

Zack Bronson's name still sits atop the 49ers depth chart at free safety, but that is only out of respect for the seven-year veteran who has manned that position for the team since 2000. Bronson won't be there this year. He was told to stay away from the team's May minicamp and will be released after June 1 in another move to make room under the salary cap, leaving the Niners with a new look and several new considerations along their last line of defense.

Officially, Bronson still is a member of the team since he is under contract for 2004 with a $1.75 million base salary. That figure is the reason the Niners have given Bronson permission to seek a trade and already have confirmed that he will be a June roster casualty. The team, already pushing against the salary cap with more than $30 million in dead money on the 2004 docket, needs the money freed by Bronson's release to sign its 10-player draft class and also leave an airway of maneuverable space against the tight cap.

The Niners wouldn't have paid Bronson that kind of money this year even if they didn't have cap problems. He failed to return to the 2001 form that earned him that contract after suffering a foot injury early in the 2002 season.

The Niners had a budding star in Bronson after he matured into a play-making ballhawk during the team's turnaround season of 2001. Bronson had seven interceptions and played at a Pro Bowl level that season, and the Niners opted to extend his contract during that year before declining after the season to pay huge free-agent dollars to another homegrown safety, Lance Schulters, who then left to sign with Tennessee.

Bronson started 40 games over the last four years, but he missed 15 games over the past two seasons with foot and neck injuries, and his play fell off noticeably last season, when he had a bulging disk in his neck. That injury reportedly no longer is bothering Bronson, but he already is out of the team's plans, making him the 10th starter - and third on defense - the Niners will lose from their 2003 lineup.

Versatile Dwaine Carpenter started the season finale against Seattle last year at free safety, and the team seemed hot on him taking over at the position when it closed shop for the winter. But at the Niners' first spring minicamp earlier this month, fourth-year veteran Ronnie Heard was getting the first look at free safety with the first team, though Carpenter was alternating at both safety positions and also getting a look as an up safety in some nickel packages.

"We really feel that Dwaine can play corner and be fairly successful there, but we really believe with his ability he can be a great safety," said Niners coach Dennis Erickson, who also saw Carpenter start one game at cornerback for his team last year. But when the team drafted Pittsburgh cornerback Shawntae Spencer late in the second round in April, the need to keep developing Carpenter on the corner diminished.

"Getting Shawntae, we can take (Carpenter) and put him at safety and that is where he is going to play," Erickson said. "He is going to be (a) free safety and that is where he is going to be from Day 1, as opposed to moving back and forth."

But the Niners also opted to bring back Heard this spring on a one-year deal, and he looked serious about competing for the starting job at a position where he started one game last year and six the year before, when he had four interceptions. Heard is a steady presence who moves well and has instincts for the position, but he does not have the potential and upside displayed by Carpenter.

The two safety positions often are interchangeable in the Niners' secondary coverage rotations, meaning star strong safety Tony Parrish - who has plenty of starting experience at free safety - also will be rotating to the free position and could play there more extensively if Bronson's replacement struggles or is found lacking during the introductory period.

Bronson's imminent departure has opened a roster position to be had for rookie Keith Lewis, San Francisco's sixth-round pick out of Oregon who was impressive during the first spring sessions and had Erickson calling him "a very physical player," even though minicamp featured no pads and non-contract drills.

Of the other young faces the Niners brought to minicamp, Delaware product Mike Adams and former Oregon State star Lawrence Turner both have potential to play both cornerback and safety and Rayshun Reed played both safety positions in college but is smallish for a safety by pro standards. Each are roster longshots at this point, with the four safety positions to lose clearly going to Parrish, Carpenter, Heard and Lewis as the team prepares for a more extensive look during its June minicamps.

Niners Digest Top Stories