Robert Saleh isn't messing around when he says that he wants to get the best 11 players on the field.
Earlier in the season it became clear that three of those top 11 were safeties: Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. The problem became what to do with Tartt and Reid once both strong safeties were healthy. In Week 7, we saw the San Francisco 49ers experiment with Reid at linebacker. Reid played 48 snaps primarily in nickel packages against the Dallas Cowboys.
Now we've learned that Reid's position change will be a permanent move for the remainder of the season. His practice reps and attendance in position meetings have shifted accordingly. Saleh spoke at length on Wednesday regarding the rationale behind the decision.
"The evolution of the running back and the tight end has far out-paced the evolution of the linebacker," Saleh said. "It's not even close. What Eric Reid has done at safety is unquestionable. He's one of the better safeties in all of football. Tartt is a very good safety. Ward is a very good safety. So to utilize their athleticism and speed – Reid being the physical player that he is and being one of our smartest players – we as an organization felt it wouldn't be an issue for him to move a couple yards closer (to the line of scrimmage) than he already was.
"We thought he did a good job (against Dallas), and in practice he's showing up again. There's no doubt in my mind, if the league thinks he was a really good safety, just wait until you see his versatility and what he can do as a linebacker. He's going to be unbelievable."
It's not an unprecedented move. Deone Bucannon of the Arizona Cardinals and Mark Barron of the Los Angeles Rams made similar moves. Both are thriving as safeties-turned-linebackers. So, too, is Telvin Smith, whom Saleh coached with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That track record of success for traditionally undersized linebackers has helped Reid warm up to his latest challenge. Reid, who shared that he weighs somewhere between 217 and 220 pounds, will match up more favorably against running backs and tight ends than most inside linebackers would.
"I had some questions at first about it, but now I think I'm really embracing it," Reid said. "I've been at the position for a week, and I think I'm starting to pick it up. I'm looking forward to learning and getting better."
The 49ers team photographers will highlight a select playerâs gameday routine each week throughout the 2017 season.
Playing strong safety in Robert Saleh's defense will help ease the learning curve. Reid was already playing in the box on all downs save 3rd-and-long. Now he just inches a bit closer to the line of scrimmage.
He'll have less space in front of him, which eliminates time to read an offense.
"Things happen quicker," Reid said. "You've got to read on the fly. That's the biggest adjustment."
Taking on blocks and shedding offensive linemen will now be a bigger part of Reid's job description as well.
"He's very fast and very physical," Saleh said. "It's about learning how to create space in such a small area. He's like a sponge. I think it's going to be pretty cool."
For now, Reid will likely stick to nickel packages, but Saleh didn't dismiss the idea of his newest linebacker playing on base downs either. That's why Reid is the 49ers biggest storyline ahead of a Week 8 road game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
"It's encouraging that they believe in me and believe in my ability," Reid said. "Now I just need to do it. I've got one game under my belt, and I look forward to getting my second one in this weekend."