Vic Fangio spoke highly of the players competing for open roles on the 49ers defense at inside linebacker, cornerback and nickel corner.
The San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator sounded encouraged by the team's depth.
New strong safety Antoine Bethea made similar comments.
Specifically, the free-agent addition praised the front seven of the defense as well as the players lining up with him in the first-team secondary.
Bethea is also the most experienced member of the four-man unit who took the field at Thursday's camp session. Bethea, the former Indianapolis Colt, has 123 starts under his belt. Cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, plus free safety Eric Reid, have made a combined 29 starts.
Although Bethea is the veteran in the room, the newcomer isn't bashful about the group's potential.
"We have some smart players back there," said the safety, who has recorded 95 or more tackles for the past six seasons. "We have Chris Culliver, who has played some great football and Tramaine Brock. Eric Reid, he made the Pro Bowl last year and P-Cox (Perrish Cox). We have a lot of great pieces in this secondary. We have the ability to do a lot of different things with a lot of great players on the defense."
The versatility of the 49ers defensive backs is key in the new-look secondary forming its own identity. Bethea said he wants this year's unit to be known for its smarts and toughness.
"Aggressive secondary and a smart secondary as well," Bethea said. "With each coverage you have your strengths and your weaknesses. You have to be a smart secondary so you don't get beat and you don't beat yourself."
San Francisco allowed 221 yards per game last season, ranking seventh in the NFL. Recreating that success is the challenge.
The new-look personnel could also feature a rookie as the slot defender. First-round draft pick Jimmie Ward made a solid first impression on Thursday, intercepting a Colin Kaepernick pass in his first training camp practice.
Bethea discussed how valuable the slot defender will be to San Francisco's success this year.
"That nickel position as you can tell over the years in the NFL," Bethea said, "it's become one of the most critical positions on the field."
The 49ers held their first 2014 training camp practice on Thursday. Enjoy some of the best photos from the day. 49ers training camp is present by SAP.
Ward will face stiff competition from Cox and Darryl Morris to be the slot cornerback.
So far, Bethea said he's liked the study habits exhibited by Ward.
Ward missed prior offseason workouts due to a foot fracture. The rookie's time on the field is all about getting practice reps where he can learn how to play certain coverages and know where his help is coming from.
"Once he gets more time on the field, once he understands this defense more – where he has help – he'll be much better," Bethea said.
The 49ers secondary appears to have strong leadership with Bethea and Reid in the group. Bethea said he has noticed Reid's excellent classroom habits rubbing off on Ward in a positive way.
"When he sees Eric writing in his notepad, asking coaches questions, of course that's going to pay off for him," said Bethea, who also expects a big year from Reid.
"He's way beyond his years," Bethea said of his backfield partner. "I think this coming year is going to be a great year for him."
Time will tell if that's the case for the secondary as a whole.
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