With Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson in tow last year, the last line of the 49ers defense could divide the field in two between themselves. Each safety had his own territory to be responsible for.
Now that Whitner stands alone until one of a quartet of free safeties takes over for Goldson, a Buccaneers free-agent signee, in advance of the regular season, Whitner is leading most lines of communication.
"That's my job to make those guys feel comfortable because no matter who" wins the job, Whitner said before Monday's practice, "one out of four guys, he is going to be inexperienced."
The 49ers Faithful's likely first choice of course would be for the Eric Reid era to begin in San Francisco by Week One. The team's first-round draftee, the least experienced among the four candidates, is also the most physically imposing in the group. At 6-foot-1, 213 pounds, it's hard for Reid to hide amongst peers.
"The potential is always there," Whitner said, "but potential can get you beat you also. … It might not be the way its drawn up in the book when you get out on the football field, especially when you're playing the top quarterbacks in the National Football League."
Whitner knows firsthand. The ninth-year pro was counted on almost immediately on a down-and-out Bills roster that did have veterans in Troy Vincent and 49ers-to-be in Nate Clements and Takeo Spikes. They gave Whitner all the information he could handle before his rookie campaign commenced in 2006.
"I was thrown into the fire, game one," Whitner, now 28, said. "Being a top-10 pick, I had to go out there and start day one, game one against Tom Brady, so I understand what Eric is going through. He is trying to be out there game one, day one against Aaron Rodgers."
Until then, Whitner's locker is situated between two contenders for the up-for-grabs position – Reid is on his right, and second–year man Trenton Robinson on his left. Veteran Craig Dahl, a free-agent signee from the Rams, and special teams ace C.J. Spillman are also in the mix.
Reid is taking his turns with the defense's first unit in practice this week. It's yet to be decided whether he'll retain the slot come Thursday night, when the 49ers open preseason play versus the Broncos at Candlestick Park.
"He asks a lot of questions, very coachable, very humble and down-to-earth guy that you can tell he just wants to work," Whitner said of his pupil. "If he makes a mistake, he's not a repeat offender… Whenever you have the willingness to come out to work and you're very coachable, then those are already ingredients for a good player.
"Guys like Eric that are first-round picks and come in and fight as if they're free agents, sixth- or seventh-round picks, those are the guys that go onto being successful."