* The defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers will open training camp at the end of the month. But before the pads come on and the competition for 53 coveted roster spots begin, 49ers.com will preview the storylines to track for each position group on the team. San Francisco's safeties come into focus next in our "49ers Camp Preview" series.* OVERVIEW **Free safety will be one of the most watched positions on the 49ers. Every move of the back end of the defense will be documented and discussed. The vacant spot on San Francisco's respected defense will be up for grabs when camp begins and all eyes will be on the white jerseys throughout the month of August. The 49ers have several viable candidates to replace outgoing Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson. In fact, the numerous candidates had opportunities to line up with the first-team defense throughout the team's offseason program.
First-round pick Eric Reid will be one of the most talked about competitors for the starting job opposite of Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner (119 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and one fumble recovery in 2012). The 49ers traded up in the first round of the NFL Draft to select Reid, a hard-hitting and hard-working safety out of LSU. Reid, however, won't be handed the job. The three-year starter in the competitive SEC conference will have to earn the position by beating the performances of veterans, Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman, plus second-year safety Trenton Robinson. All four received first-team reps in the offseason and will have more chances to move up the depth chart when training camp begins.
No matter who lines up at free safety, the winner of the competition will have to master the strong safety position held by Whitner. Vic Fangio's defense features an interchangeable safety system which highlights the greater challenge for a newcomer like Reid, or a free agent signee like Dahl, as they strive to take over as a first-team safety. Whoever wins the job will have to earn it with steady play in training camp and preseason games.
RETURNERS: Donte Whitner (eighth season), C.J. Spillman (fifth season), Trenton Robinson (second season), Darcel McBath (fourth season) and Michael Thomas (2012 practice squad). NEWCOMERS: Eric Reid (first-round pick, LSU), Craig Dahl (seventh season) and Raymond Ventrone (eighth season).
Reserve safeties Spillman and McBath were valuable performers on San Francisco's special teams units. Both have game experience at safety, too. Robinson was active for three regular season games to start his rookie season but was inactive for the next 16 games (regular season and postseason combined). The second-year safety, however, was praised by Fangio for his development in the offseason program and earned first-team reps opposite of Whitner, a player know for mentoring young safeties on the roster. Robinson also has an opportunity to compete for more special teams snaps. Ventrone, a respected special teams player, was inserted into the first-team cover units the very next day after he signed with the 49ers in early June. Across the board, competitions for defensive and special teams snaps will be followed closely in training camp. The 49ers have players capable of contributing to the team in both areas.
In his two seasons in San Francisco, Whitner has averaged 105 tackles per year.
"He can play down in the box. He has great contact courage. He likes to get from point A to point B and go hit somebody. He's an effective tackler. And he's a hard-hitting tackler. But, he also plays the deep part of the field extremely well. And can track the football. Has the speed to go be a range safety, cover ground. And long arms, big wingspan. Gets guys down when he tackles. But, also can make plays on the ball when it's thrown up in the air. So, I would say both of those things he excels at."
-Jim Harbaugh on the tackling and coverage skills that made Reid the No. 18 overall pick.