Our training camp positional previews continue with a look at the team’s safeties.
- Antoine Bethea is the biggest name among the team’s newcomers. Bethea is a former Super Bowl champion and a two-time Pro Bowl strong safety with the Indianapolis Colts. He’s a quarterback for the defense who can hit, cover and avoid penalties. Bethea enters his ninth season in the NFL and first with the 49ers after signing a four-year free-agent contract. The 5-foot-11, 206-pound safety has produced 95 or more tackles every year since 2008, and he hasn’t missed a start in those six seasons. It’s worth noting that Bethea probably won’t have to make as many tackles behind San Francisco’s front seven.
- Eric Reid is wise beyond his years. That’s the assessment of Bethea, whom the 49ers signed to pair with their second-year free safety. Reid made it to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and is poised to continue his play-making ways in the defensive backfield. Reid totaled 77 tackles, 11 pass breakups and four interceptions as a rookie. That production took place while he was mastering the defensive playbook. Now that the cerebral safety knows the defense even better, expect him to continue his ascending play.
- San Francisco drafted Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward with its first-round draft pick in 2014. Ward is listed as a defensive back, mostly because he can play at safety and at slot cornerback. The NIU standout is fully healed from the foot injury that sidelined him this offseason, and will be interesting to see how fast he can adapt to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense. The respected coach has been known to make his rookies earn their playing time. See Aldon Smith in ’11 and Reid in ’13. PLAYER TO WATCH
We have a good sense of what Bethea and Reid can do on the football field. Sure, they’ll use camp sessions to tighten up their pre-snap communication, but those things were mostly ironed out in OTAs and minicamp. Ward’s the one who is going to get his first taste of NFL football.
Following the draft, the 49ers defensive back was praised for his hard-hitting and deep coverage skills. After the first few weeks of camp and first preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, we should have a better sense of what Ward can offer in his first season.
Undrafted rookie James McCray is an alum of Catawba College, just like defensive line coach Jim Tomsula… San Francisco should have a competitive backup safety battle in camp with first-year pros Ward and McCray challenging veterans C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl for playing time with the second-team defense… Spillman missed offseason workouts. The sixth-year pro underwent hand surgery and had a cast on his hand… Spillman and Dahl are key contributors on the team’s special teams units. Spillman led the 49ers with 19 special teams tackles. Ninth-year pro Bubba Ventrone, a reserve safety, recorded 15 special teams tackles in his first year with San Francisco.