Training camp battleground: Free safety

Mike Adams was one of the biggest surprises of the 49ers' 2005 season, establishing himself as a legitimate NFL player at free safety whose interceptions were decisive in two of the team's four victories. But his size and skills might be better suited to other roles in the secondary, and that's where the names Chad Williams and Ben Emanuel – among several others – come into play at the position.

The lasting image of Adams' second NFL season was the 5-foot-11, 192-pound speedster swooping in from the right side to intercept a Tony Banks pass with the 49ers trailing the woeful Houston Texans 17-10 in the final seconds of the third quarter in the season finale between two of the league's worst teams.

Adams wove through traffic to return the pick 40 yards for a touchdown that tied the game and pushed the 49ers to a 20-17 overtime victory that gave San Francisco a two-game winning streak to end the season. Adams had two interceptions in that game, giving him a team-leading four for the season – a season that began when Adams sealed a 28-25 victory over St. Louis in the opener with an interception with 59 seconds remaining to play and the Rams driving deep in San Francisco territory.

The thing is, that game-saving pick against St. Louis came with Adams in the game as a nickel back. And his two interceptions against Houston came in the only game of the season that Adams started at cornerback.

After the Mike Rumph experiment at free safety lasted only three games last September, the Niners decided to give Adams a shot at the starting lineup by moving him to the last line of their defense. Adams responded immediately, starting the next nine games at free safety while learning the position on the job without any major breakdowns.

A leg injury sent him to the bench for two games after that, giving second-year veteran Keith Lewis an opportunity to start the final four games at free safety. But by the time the season had concluded, Adams clearly had established himself as one of San Francisco's most productive defenders of 2005, finishing fifth on the team with 68 tackles to go along with his four picks, one sack and one fumble recovery.

But while Adams has good make-up speed and seldom allowed receivers get behind him, he wasn't the kind of tall, rangy ballhawk that would be optimum at the position for the team's defensive scheme. That had the 49ers looking to upgrade at the position in the offseason, knowing that they could use Adams in several other roles if they found a more attractive option at free safety.

What the 49ers came up with in the offseason is veteran Chad Williams, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, and sixth-round draft pick Marcus Hudson, who displayed a lot of potential in college while starting at both cornerback and safety at North Carolina State.

Williams (5-foot-9, 207 pounds) is more in the mold of a strong safety, but coach Mike Nolan got a close look at Williams' play-making ability during their time together in Baltimore, when Williams saw extensive action in the Baltimore secondary and played in every game with the Ravens over the past four seasons.

Williams returned an interception for a touchdown in each of his first three NFL seasons, and he comes to San Francisco with eight career interceptions that he returned 320 yards – a 40-yard average. Included in those totals was a 98-yard interception return for a TD in 2002, a 52-yard TD return in 2003, a 44-yard TD return in 2004 and a 94-yard return in 2004 that was stopped just short of a touchdown. Williams also has 154 tackles in 64 career games to go along with five forced fumbles, four recovered fumbles and 4.5 sacks.

That's the definition of a playmaker, and if Williams isn't the choice to start at free safety, he figures to have a regular role in secondary coverage packages. But, while Williams is Adams' top challenger for the starting role entering training camp, Hudson also is an intriguing option with his blend of size (6-2, 200), coverage skills and playmaking ability that produced eight interceptions in college – three of which Hudson returned for touchdowns, including long returns of 100 and 60 yards.

But Hudson probably is too raw at this point to challenge for a starting role in a secondary that's looking to add polish to its front-line unit, meaning veterans Lewis and Emanuel also will get a legitimate look at free safety when the pads go on this Friday.

Lewis, a great special teams player and hitter who appeared to lack the coverage skills necessary of a starting safety during most of his first two NFL seasons, surprised a lot of people with his coverage skills during his four starts at the end of last season. Lewis had an interception and knocked away three passes during that stint, and he could be a factor at either safety position if he continues to develop.

The same holds true for Emanuel, who went from San Francisco's practice squad in October to starting the team's final seven games at strong safety after Tony Parrish went down with a season-ending broken leg in November. Emanuel fared well for a rookie, finishing ninth on the team with 43 tackles and grabbing an interception, and since he was primarily a free safety in college, he also is an outside contender to start opposite Parrish this season.

But Adams is the frontrunner entering training camp, and if the confidence, ability and development he displayed last season continues to grow in 2006, the 49ers likely will find no reason not to keep him there.

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