With the anticipated loss of the All-Pro safety, the San Francisco 49ers began scheduling visits with safeties quite early on in the free agent process.
There was an understanding that their budget constraints could not feasibly endure another top-5 player on defense at face value, so they were essentially forced to let Goldson walk.
GM Trent Baalke allowed himself a head start, hosting Charles Woodson and Louis Delmas within one week of free agency. The team was also linked to future Hall of Famer Ed Reed, who was essentially out of their price range (h/t Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk).
In retrospect, this was simply San Francisco’s personnel department doing their due diligence. They passed on all three starting-caliber defensive backs, knowing full well that their free safety of the future was in the upcoming NFL draft.
With this being the case, the Niners sought out a low-cost option; an individual that could compete in training camp, and worst case, would be a healthy addition to Brad Seely’s special teams unit.
The 49ers would end up signing Craig Dahl, formerly of the division rival St. Louis Rams, per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. The seven-year pro was told he would have “an opportunity” at the free safety spot, but he will likely be relegated to depth and special teams.
Dahl, 27, originally entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants. His stint with the team was marred by injury, which eventually led to his departure from the team.
He then signed with St. Louis, playing four seasons with the Rams (61 games, 40 starts). During that time, Dahl accrued 320 tackles, 4 forced fumbles (3 recoveries) and 4 interceptions.
The numbers are not bad for a journeying undrafted free agent safety, but his ceiling is still considerably low. The best-case scenario: he pulls his weight as a special teams gunner.
Even more unfortunate, Dahl has suffered not one, but two torn ACLs since joining the league in 2007 (h/t Rotoworld).
By going this route, the 49ers made it clear they would address the safety position in the upcoming NFL draft. And with all respect to Dahl, there is no evidence that would indicate he is a capable successor to Goldson.
In the 2013 draft, which is less than a month away, the 49ers should look to solidify the back end with a top-rated safety.
Top 5 Candidates
1. Eric Reid, LSU
A source told the Chronicle that the 49ers have done extensive background on LSU safety Eric Reid, who projects as a second-rounder.
There is a lot to like about Reid as a football player. With his rough-and-tumble bravura, he is like a sledgehammer coming out of the defensive backfield. And considering Goldson’s departure, it would be great fit for San Francisco, since Reid could help preserve that brute presence.
During his time in the NCAA, Reid displayed his adoration for contact, forming an exceedingly physical prowess for the game. Reid tried to dominate receivers, making sure they thought twice before floating across the middle.
And physically (6’1”, 213 pounds), he also possesses decent straight-line speed, which has helped him close on the ball carrier consistently.
Unfortunately, his upside is as a box safety; Reid is stiff in coverage and not terribly agile. The 49ers would not have the hawking presence with him back there, and there would still be a chance the play gets behind him.
The advantage with him in coverage is that Reid is a torpedo; he absolutely excels at timing his hits at the point of the catch. His disruptive ways as a defensive back helped him succeed at the college level, but he might struggle in a passing league.
However, Reid is great at running the play down and can step up into the box, providing a physical presence against the run.
But with all things considered, Reid is not the rangy cover defensive back the Niners need. His hand-eye coordination is merely on par, and his ball skills leave something to be desired.
2. Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
Rambo is an electrifying defender from the SEC, mostly because he is a multifaceted safety. He maintains the hard-hitting trademark, but he has also flashed brilliant ball skills over four seasons at Georgia.
This stems from his natural high intensity level as a player. Rambo brings a great deal of energy, always seeming eager to make a play. On game day, it shows in his relentless tackling and aggressiveness on the ball.
And despite being labeled a banger, his 16 career interceptions with the Bulldogs have proven Rambo possesses the soft hands and awareness to lurk in the secondary.
Coupled with his fluid footwork, the All-American can play single-high for San Francisco, as well as halves. From a schematic perspective, Rambo would be able to do a lot of things for the 49ers as a rookie.
With his tweener frame and vast skill set, he brings a ton of versatility.
Moreover, Rambo is very thorough in his assignments, and can be utilized as a multipurpose weapon. Outside of his defensive obligations, he can potentially be a firework on special teams.
Though, a drawback of his is that when going for the impact blow, Rambo occasionally fails to wrap up. These whiffs look quite ugly on film, and they are something that won’t be tolerated in the Bay Area.
In the grand scheme of things, this team can greatly benefit from a player that not only attacks the football, but also sets the tempo.
3. Phillip Thomas, Fresno State
Thomas is one of the safeties, not often discussed, that has a lot of upside.
The in-state product projects as an early- to mid-rounder in the upcoming draft, and has been commended for his coverage ability. This is a player that looks that part and could handle the workload at the next level.
Above all, Thomas has great hand-eye coordination and natural coverage instincts.
During his time with the Bulldogs, he was a playmaker all over the gridiron. In a comeback senior season in 2012, Thomas accrued 84 tackles, 4.0 sacks and eight interceptions, finishing with a 9-4 team record.
He also had three defensive touchdowns and four forced fumbles (via Sports Reference).
At 6’1”, 208 pounds, Thomas possesses the adequate size and athleticism, along with the toughness, to play the safety position for San Francisco. Aside from excelling as a free-roaming center fielder, he is agile enough to line up and play man-to-man.
As someone quick enough to run with wide receivers and hybrid tight ends, he projects as a good coverage safety in the pros.
The knock against him is that he often gambles, which leads to him getting burned for the big play. And after reviewing the film, one can see that Thomas is not a consistent tackler, as he occasionally whiffs.
While he is fully capable of some very mighty hits—lowering his shoulder with tenacity—his timing and angles of pursuit appear to be flawed.
4. Matt Elam, Florida
When you turn on the film, Elam is one of those players that sort of leaps out at you. He was a commanding presence for the Gators, exhibiting distinct leadership qualities during his three-year tenure.
Elam really came on in his sophomore and junior years, racking up 154 tackles, 4.0 sacks and six interceptions in that time. His 18 pass deflections and three forced fumbles also help exemplify his presence around the football (via Sports Reference).
It wasn’t long before Elam’s ability as a striker became well known, either.
He is an absolutely devastating hitter, with great closing speed, and the raw power to jar the ball loose on any given down. Though only 5’10”, he is 208 pounds of muscle, and he simply runs through players.
The great thing about Elam is that he does everything pretty well, proving he can be multifaceted at the next level.
Having run a 4.54 at the scouting combine, Elam has the straight-line speed to drop back and play single-high. Moreover, he can cover up the tight end or perform in the box like a linebacker.
He is just a pure football player, which is a primary reason San Francisco would be attracted to him. He also might be the best open-field tackler of all the defensive backs in this draft.
Elam would bring strength, athleticism and power to the safety position, and an ace on special teams.
Though, like a few of the other overeager safeties, Elam is not always the most technically sound player. With his unquenchable thirst for contact, he often lunges for the ball carrier and takes himself out of the play.
This is a pain because it opens up lanes for runners, and is a huge red flag for a player that this supposed to be the last line of defense.
Compares To: Charles Godfrey (Carolina), Donte Whitner (San Francisco)
5. Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International
This prospect received a lot of praise throughout the draft process thus far, coming off a significant week at the Senior Bowl.
To put it simply, Cyprien is a gamer, which is why he thrived around the elite-level competition heading into the draft. He displayed natural awareness, as well as sideline-to-sideline speed, allowing him to engage in virtually every play.
And according to Rob Rang of CBS Sports, Cyprien “consistently played well against so-called ‘top’ competition over his career, enjoying standout performances in past years against the likes of Texas A&M, Rutgers, Maryland and Louisville, among others.”
With his great enthusiasm and physicality, Cyprien was a presence for four years in the NCAA. During that time, he accrued six interceptions, 28 pass deflections and six forced fumbles (via Sports Reference).
And as FIU’s all-time leading tackler, Cyprien cannot only take the football away, but he can get to the ball carrier. The well-built (6’0”, 217 pounds) hitter has never shied away from contact, having finished with 93 tackles as a senior and 113 as a sophomore.
He also meets the ball carrier with some oomph.
Very cognizant, Cyprien diagnoses plays and possesses the proper read-and-react skills to make a play. And since he is a natural, and can make plays on the ball in flight, he would be interchangeable in San Francisco’s defense.
And if he finds himself in a trail position, Cyprien has the recovery speed to close on the defender and be disruptive with his hands. Another positive is that he is a confident player that truly trusts his instincts.
Overall, Cyprien is a well-rounded athlete that certainly looks the part. Under the tutelage of the 49ers staff and veterans, he could develop into a star player.
Though he is not terribly rangy, Cyprien can be groomed into an effective starter. But the 49ers must mind the fact that he is primarily a Cover 2 safety—not a true center fielder.
This year, eight draft experts—Gil Brandt, Charley Casserly, Daniel Jeremiah, Matt Smith, Rob Rang, Dane Brugler, Pat Kirwan and Pete Prisco—all favor other positions for the 49ers at No. 31 overall.
The lesson here is that the 49ers can wait until pick No. 34 or No. 61 to select their FS of the future. But in this case, it will be safeties of the future, as San Francisco could be expected to select not one, but two.
The tandem the 49ers will want to go with is made of Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas.
GM Trent Baalke waits until Day 2 to restructure the defensive backfield, bringing in two NFL-ready prospects. With their particular skill sets, Rambo and Thomas provide a quintessential balance for San Francisco long-term.
Both safeties are interchangeable, as is necessary in Vic Fangio’s defense, and have a great deal of playmaking ability between them.
This 3-4 defense that we run, we learned it from Dick LeBeau and the Steelers, and Phillip’s our Troy Polamalu. Where you’ve gotta have a guy who’s gonna be a difference-maker, you can blitz him, you can have him in pass coverage, you can have him as a run-force player, he can play man coverage and he can disguise everything? That guy, for us, is Phillip.
Thomas facilitated a turnaround of the program from a defensive perspective, leading them from No. 116 to No. 7 against the pass.
Rambo also maintained a high profile as an instinctive player at Georgia; known for reading quarterbacks and capturing momentum.
After picking the best player available at defensive line, wide receiver or tight end in Round 1, the 49ers draft both Rambo and Thomas in the early-to-mid rounds. Pending unforeseen circumstance, these two can be the long-term successors to Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner.
Since Whitner has another year left on his contract, Thomas and Rambo can compete and potentially rotate at free safety this season before taking over as dual starters in 2014.
Come training camp, Dahl will have to prove he can be an asset to the special-teams unit if he hopes to keep a roster spot. Fueled by Darwin's theory and led by Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers maintain one of the most competitive camps in the league.
There should be plenty of bodies competing at free safety, but expect the 2013 draftees to emerge once things get underway in Santa Clara.