The San Francisco 49ers enter 2017 with three starting-caliber safeties on their roster — Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. How may the Niners go about adjusting this group to maximize the potential, and what winds up happening in the regular season?
The San Francisco 49ers got rid of one excess piece at the safety position this offseason, releasing veteran Antoine Bethea three years into his four-year deal with the Niners.
Four players now remain at the position — Eric Reid, Jaquiski Tartt, Marcus Ball and Vinnie Sunseri.
The final two are bubble players at best, so let’s not focus on them. Instead, let’s also note the Niners plan on moving defensive back Jimmie Ward to free safety this upcoming season, per Eric Branch of SFGate.com.
San Francisco 49ers
Ward’s natural position is safety, so it shouldn’t be a difficult transition. But last year, in an attempt to get San Francisco’s best defenders on the field, former defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil kept Ward at cornerback.
With the pending move, the 49ers now have a bit of a logjam at the position — three players vying for two openings.
What are some options for the Niners? And if we consider the NFL Draft, could a safety draftee add even more competition to the mix?
Remember, general manager John Lynch is a former safety. He’ll have close eyes on this particular position.
Evaluating What the 49ers Have
Right now, it’s safe to say three candidates are up for these two openings — Reid, Tartt and Ward.
Reid is the incumbent. He managed 48 tackles, six passes defended and an interception in an injury-shortened campaign last year that limited him to 10 games. Pro Football Focus gave Reid a 70.4 overall grade in 2016.
Not bad. But it’s safe to say Reid hasn’t matched the Pro Bowl-caliber season he had during his rookie 2013 season.
Tartt, on the other hand, posted a 70.2 PFF grade on 612 snaps. The two-year pro had 36 tackles and three passes defended, but Tartt was a liability against the run. And this likely negated the idea he could be a hybrid linebacker-type safety up in the box. At least to an extent.
And then there’s Ward.
Ward was one of San Francisco’s better defenders last season, posting an overall PFF grade of 75.8 and ranking second on the defense with 12 passes broken up.
We can all but guarantee Ward will emerge as the starting free safety this season. But what happens at the strong position?
NFL Draft Complications
Eric Galko of SportingNews.com recently mocked LSU safety Jamal Adams to San Francisco at No. 2 overall.
And Niner Noise’s own Nicholas McGee made the case for Ohio State’s Malik Hooker.
Regardless who the prospect winds up being, the possibility of the 49ers going this route opens up a plethora of different scenarios.
Since young defensive backs tend to struggle early at the NFL level, it wouldn’t be a shock to see a rookie safety used sparingly in year one. But, perhaps, a player like Adams or Hooker winds up being a plug-and-play starter to immediately add impact to a suspect defense.
Should this happen, Reid and Tartt would be out of a starting job.
The Eric Reid Factor
There’s a good argument suggesting the Niners part ways with Reid and let Tartt be a full-time, in-the-box safety.
Especially now the 49ers will use a Seattle Seahawks-like defense under new coordinator Robert Saleh.
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Reid is entering a contract year this season and is set to make $5.676 million and costs zero in dead money. There is the possibility of a trade, but it’s hard to see Reid commanding much more than a mid-to-late-round pick this year or next.
A guess would be the Niners are keeping their options open right now. All this would be contingent on what happens in the draft and, to a lesser extent, additional offseason programs.
The Niners are likely going to keep Reid around at least until the preseason to see how this position battle squares off. If Reid winds up being the bona fide winner in this competition, San Francisco rolls with him in 2017.
If not, well, let the Tartt/Hooker/Adams/or-whoever show begin.