Many concluded that the San Francisco 49ers would be looking to find a natural cover safety somewhere in free agency or the draft once it became apparent that they weren't going to be able to retain the services of Dashon Goldson.
After all, Goldson and running mate Donte Whitner struggled in coverage towards the latter part of the 2012 season.
Names mentioned included Charles Woodson, Ed Reed and Michael Huff.
Considering that San Francisco's base 3-4 defense relies a great deal on pressure from the front seven and places less of an emphasis on coverage over the top, its brass figured the ideal scenario would be to find a younger, cheaper alternative.
While San Francisco was linked to Kenny Vaccaro, especially when it traded up in the first round of April's draft, it decided to go with a Goldson clone in the form of Eric Reid from Louisiana State.
Though it is a widespread belief that general manager Trent Baalke and Co. completely aced the 2013 draft, Reid's selection raised eyebrows around the scouting community.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had Reid pegged as a late second-round pick and the fourth-best free safety in the draft class.
A few weeks before the draft, I had indicated that Reid would go to San Francisco in a mock draft conduced via Twitter. The issue here is that I selected him in the middle of the second round.
The idea here seemed to be giving up a little value in the initial round to select a player you had been targeting throughout the entire draft process. Some may criticize San Francisco's decision to go with Reid, but he seems to fit its defense to a T.
On the other hand, it isn't like Goldson didn't fit what San Francisco was doing. The issue there was the amount of money Trent Baalke and Co. would have had to dole out in order to retain the Pro Bowl safety.
The physical dimensions between these two hard-hitting defensive backs are similar, at least at the times each of them entered the NFL (all combine results provided by NFL.combineresults.com):
|Player||Ht||Wt||40 Time||Bench Reps|
|Eric Reid||6'1"||213||4.53||17 at 225|
|Dashon Goldson||6'2"||205||4.60||12 at 225|
As you can see above, Reid is a bit more of a physical specimen coming into the league than Goldson was. In fact, Goldson himself was a converted cornerback from Washington.
Both situations seem to indicate that Reid will struggle a bit more in coverage than what fans in San Francisco have seen from Goldson over the past few years. Those indications are also backed up by numerous scouting reports from around the draft community.
Bleacher Report's Eric Stoner filed the following report immediately prior to the annual draft this past April:
[Reid] shows he has the range to play all the deep safety coverages, but he’s tall in his backpedal and leggy when changing directions, often causing him to take extra steps and get to the ball late. If he can clean up his technique and improve his lower-body strength (in order to be able to plant and drive more quickly), it will greatly improve his ability to play as an interchangeable safety.
As Stoner indicated in the scouting report, Reid has the ability to be more of "an interchangeable safety," something that came to define Goldson's role in his six seasons with San Francisco.
Reid isn't someone you can rely on to play man coverage on the outside or be utilized as an extra cornerback. That's simply not where he is going to earn his bucks at the next level.
Early in his career, long before Goldson took on the hard-hitting mentality, he would be asked to play more of a cover role on the outside. That aspect of his game diminished once he became a viable option as a hard-hitting enforcer on the back end of the defense.
Much like what we are going to see with Goldson and Barron in Tampa Bay, you can expect Donte Whitner and Reid to change their roles to fit the personnel they're going to be going up against. While Whitner doesn't have the necessary coverage ability to play free safety, there is no reason to believe that Reid can't move on to the strong side with a nickel guy coming in to take the role of free safety in obvious passing situations.
Again, we saw this a great deal in San Francisco last season—and for good reason.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Whitner ranked 68th among safeties in coverage last year, while Goldson came in at 10th.
That's not an unreasonable split between how a free safety performs in coverage compared to a strong safety, but Whitner being ranked 68th of a possible 88 safeties has to be concerning for San Francisco this upcoming season.
What has to be even more concerning is that Reid doesn't possess the experience or coverage ability that Goldson did as running mate with Whitner over the past two seasons.
For a team that was just five yards away from winning the Super Bowl last season, it's a less-than-ideal situation to go into the year with a rookie free safety and a strong safety who ranks among the worst pass defenders at that position in the NFL.
San Francisco could easily make up for it by boasting what has to be considered one of the best front sevens in the entire league.
This is important to note, because of what San Francisco did last year in the playoffs. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Goldson finished with a negative pass-coverage grade in two of San Francisco's three postseason games. What is interesting here is that Whitner finished with a positive grade in pass coverage in six of San Francisco's final eight games, postseason included.
That being said, look what happened once both struggled covering over the top. The two combined for a negative-1.6 grade in coverage against the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. It isn't a coincidence that San Francisco yielded 287 passing yards, three touchdowns and a 124.2 rating to Joe Flacco in that game.
Are we poised to see the same type of breakdowns in San Francisco this season?
That really is a question worth rehashing.
Even with Eric Reid entering, I still have Kenny Vaccaro as my top safety. Vaccaro better in coverage, while Reid is a bigger hitter.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 4, 2013
Most of the major concerns surrounding Reid during the draft process were related to coverage. Matt Miller indicated this relatively early in the draft process.
Pat Yasinskas over at ESPN filed the following report on Goldson immediately after he signed with Tampa Bay this offseason:
The 49ers ranked among the top five defenses in the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt and interceptions on passes of at least 15 yards downfield over the past two seasons. On throws of that distance, Goldson produced six interceptions over the past two seasons.
While Reid possesses the same type of skill set as Goldson, it's hard to envision him being able to come in and make the same type of impact we have seen over the past two seasons from the veteran he is replacing.
San Francisco made the decision to go with the cheaper alternative but did give up a lot as it relates to coverage over the top.
It's now up to other players in the defensive secondary to mask what promises to be an extensive learning curve for Reid.
Will Whitner be able to step up in coverage when asked to? What about the continued progression of both Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown at cornerback?
These are going to be two huge question marks for what is otherwise one of the most talented teams in the entire league.
As with most 3-4 defenses, San Francisco's will be relying on pressure from the front seven to mask perceived weaknesses in the back four.
On that note, the return to health of one Justin Smith is going to be huge here. If he is able to act like the big body in the front three, Aldon Smith will be able to build off the success we saw last season before his older namesake went down to injury.
The talented outside linebacker recorded 19.5 sacks in the first 13 games of the regular season, all with San Francisco's All-Pro defensive end healthy.
The minute that Justin Smith went down to injury, Aldon found himself struggling to get pressure on the quarterback.
In the final three games of the regular season, the Pro Bowl outside linebacker recorded a total of zero sacks.
It cannot be a coincidence that San Francisco's defense yielded nearly 30 points per game during those final three regular-season games. Even when Justin Smith did return to the field, not anywhere near 100 percent, San Francisco continued to struggle on defense. It gave up the exact same number of points in those three postseason games as it yielded in the final three regular-season games with Justin Smith sidelined.
Are you confident in Eric Reid's coverage ability as a rookie?
If this isn't a sign of a team relying on pressure from the front seven in order to succeed, I have no idea what is. As long as San Francisco can acquire said pressure from the usual suspects, it will be fine—even with a rookie playing free safety.
In addition, San Francisco was able to add two talented pass-rushers in the draft in the forms of Cornellius Carradine and Corey Lemonier. Both promise to be key members of its rotation this upcoming season and could easily help take pressure of Reid in coverage over the top.
Also, expect San Francisco to switch it up a great deal in the secondary with the players it currently has. Reid can play in the box, as can Whitner. This enables the 49ers to play Nnamdi Asomugha and even Chris Culliver at free safety in certain packages.
Again, that will help the obvious learning curve that we are going to see from Reid this upcoming season. It's all about defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and his ability to put players in the right situations to succeed.
He did that with Goldson, but will we see it this year with Reid? That's the $1 million question.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.