The San Francisco 49ers are set for training camp to begin at the end of the month. But before the team can defend its NFC West division crown this upcoming season, let's take a look at the depth of each position group on the roster as they prepare for camp. Safeties are up next. OVERVIEW**
After he recorded 80 tackles, a career-best six interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 2011, Dashon Goldson became the first 49ers safety to be named to the Pro Bowl since 1999. Goldson, however, elected not to participate in the game itself so he could let his body rest after a rigorous season. Still, the 27-year-old playmaker became even more of a household name thanks to his fearless play and an eight-game stretch of the regular season that saw him record all six of his interceptions in between Weeks 8-15. Paired with fellow hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner, who signed a three-year contract with the 49ers last offseason, Goldson enjoyed one of his finest seasons to date, both against the run and the pass. Goldson, the team's fourth-round pick in 2007, was designated as the team's franchise player this offseason and did not reach a long-term agreement prior to the July 16 deadline. It is not known when Goldson will sign his one-year contract as San Francisco's franchise player; veterans report for training camp on July 26. The 49ers cannot work on a long-term deal during the 2012 season, but can resume discussions following the season. Whitner, San Francisco's other run-supporting playmaker, who recorded 91 tackles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and one forced fumble, said he's grown tremendously from having a full offseason with the 49ers coaching staff. Whitner added that he's approaching the upcoming season with the mindset of helping San Francisco become the league's top-ranked defense. With Goldson working out on his own this offseason, young safeties on the roster were able to step in and get first-team reps on defense. For fourth-year safety C.J. Spillman, the opportunity allowed the special teams gunner to showcase his all-around defensive skills for the coaching staff.
*RETURNERS: Dashon Goldson (sixth season), Donte Whitner (seventh season, second in San Francisco), C.J. Spillman (fourth season, third in San Francisco), and Colin Jones (second season). NEWCOMERS: Trenton Robinson (sixth-round pick, Michigan State), Michael Thomas (undrafted, Stanford), Mark LeGree (first season) and Ben Hannula (first season). *
Sixth-round draft pick Trenton Robinson benefitted greatly this offseason from first-team practice reps. The Michigan State product also received a great deal of support from his elder teammates. Undrafted safety Michael Thomas enters training camp with the experience of already playing for a Vic Fangio-coached defense from his time at Stanford. The background in Fangio's system was a big help for the safety, who has experience lining up at safety and inside as a nickel cornerback. Both Robinson and Thomas picked up a great deal of confidence just from the time they spent with players like Whitner. Ben Hannula, a former University of San Diego product, also offers position versatility as he lined up at both wide receiver and defensive back throughout the offseason. It remains to be seen which side of the ball Hannula will compete with when the exhibition season begins.
The 49ers won the turnover battle in 14 of last year's 16 regular season games (87.5 percent). Furthermore, the 49ers finished last season with a 28 turnover differential, the best mark in the NFL and the second-highest differential in the league since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
"I would suppose you could say potentially, but you've got to do it week in and week out. You can't skip a couple steps along the way and that's the thing we emphasis to our guys. We're not looking at a 16-game schedule. We play one game at a time. I know you guys don't want to hear that, but that is my philosophy. We're not looking to be the greatest defense in the history of the NFL. We're looking to be the best defense we can be in each and every game and not look forward. And then let the chips fall where they may."
-Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on the odds of his defense surpassing last year's impressive statistics.