For the 49ers' Defensive Backfield, It's Safety in Numbers
Upon releasing strong safety Jimmy Williams on the commencement of OTA’s, 49er safeties must have felt, well, just a little bit safer.
Head Coach and mathematician Mike Singletary described the move as a numbers game.
When looking at the 49ers safety depth chart it's easy to lose track of the promising, yet unproven players that populate the overcrowded position.
Why turn on Survivor, when the best reality survival competition is right in your own backyard at 4949 Centennial Blvd.?
Here is a list of the current safeties competing to avoid the title of “weakest link” come September.
Michael Lewis- SS: Starter
Michael Lewis is the most experienced and decorated of the 49ers safeties. Since being selected by the Eagles in the second round (58th overall) of the 2003 NFL draft, Lewis started three seasons for the Eagles, including a 2004 Pro Bowl selection.
Since joining the 49ers in the 2007 offseason, Lewis has been a consistent contributor in run support and above average (for a strong safety) in pass coverage.
In his first year with the 49ers in 2007, Lewis amassed an impressive 105 tackles and two interceptions. The following year, while missing plays due to nagging injuries, Lewis still managed to post 96 tackles and zero interceptions.
Over the course of his seven year career, Lewis has amassed 586 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 11 interceptions.
Although injury prone during the 2008 season, Lewis’ previous durability and the 49ers depth at strong safety (Reggie Smith, Curtis Taylor) bodes well for the 49ers strong safety position.
At 29-years-old, Lewis provides a solution for the intermediate term. His presence will only help in the development of the young and inexperienced Reggie Smith and Curtis Taylor.
Dashon Goldson- FS: Starter
Since being selected in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft, Goldson has established himself as a fan-favorite despite his limited on-field opportunities. To those who read 49er beat writer blogs or attend the 49ers open-to-public training camp, Goldson has been a practice All-Pro.
Unfortunately for Goldson, missed assignments and nagging injuries have kept him from ever vying for the actual title of All-Pro or even starter for that matter. Until now that is.
In limited opportunities filling in for a dinged-up Michael Lewis or Mark Roman, Goldson has looked impressive.
Despite his inexperience and history of injuries, Goldson is likely the most explosive, electrifying and high-potential safety in the 49er backfield. Look for Goldson to emerge as an impact player IF he can stay healthy.
It is this very potential that lead the 49er coaching staff to name Goldson the starting free safety entering the 2009 season.
Reggie Smith- SS: Backup
Upon declaring for the 2008 NFL draft, this former standout Oklahoma defensive back was considered a first or second round pick. Starring in the free safety role during his freshman and sophomore seasons, and cornerback position as a junior, Smith excelled in the Sooner defensive backfield.
As a freshman he earned Freshman All-Big 12 and Freshman All-American honors for his significant contributions. During his sophomore year he only improved, earning Second-team Coaches All Big 12 and First-team AP All-Big 12 honors at free safety.
Entering his junior season in 2007, Smith was named preseason All-Big 12 defensive player of the year. Due to his versatility and uncanny ability to cover receivers in the open field, Smith was moved to cornerback for his junior season. Despite the position change, Smith performed commendably in his new role, posting 78 tackles and 3 interceptions while earning First Team Coaches’ All-Big 12, First-Team AP All-Big 12, and Honorable Mention All-American in 2007.
Smith’s freefall to the third round of the draft was a result of his poor timed speed (4.65 in pro day 40 yard dash), forcing most scouts to list him as a free safety.
After a year of sitting behind Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Shawntae Spencer, Donald Strickland, and Tarrell Brown, Smith has been moved back from cornerback to strong safety. Given his phenomenal instincts and proven production as a safety in college, Smith should provide a formidable backup to incumbent starter Michael Lewis.
Mark Roman- FS: Backup (Cut)
Telling an NFL player they can seek a trade is like telling an artist not to quit their day job.
If lucky, there will be an interested trade suitor and the athlete will be exchanged for draft picks and/or players. If no interest is generated, the unwanted athlete will find himself unemployed and auditioning elsewhere for work.
Either way it doesn’t bode well for their future with the team.
Upon being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round (34th overall) of the 2000 NFL draft, the former LSU star has been a disappointment.
After four years with the Bengals, two with the Packers, and three with the 49ers, Roman has yet to stick as the franchise free safety that teams once envisioned him as.
In three years as the 49ers starting free safety, Roman has managed just one interception. That is not a typo. It is a testament to his mediocrity as well as his lack of instincts and ball skills.
The 2008 season was the most painfully forgettable season yet for the 49er free safety. He was often out of position on deep passes or burned by tight ends (the ultimate “no-no” for defensive backs).
Needless to say, he provided the 49ers the worst safety option since the inception of the “pull out” technique.
Over the course of his nine year career, the NFL journeyman totaled just 489 tackles, seven sacks and five interceptions.
During his time in Candlestick, it’s likely that I’ve intercepted more balls from my nosebleed-seated position.
This current off-season, the 49er coaching staff has named promising third-year player Dashon Goldson the new starting free safety, supplanting Roman on the depth chart.
Given that Roman is neither the short term starter, nor the long term solution at age 32, Roman may find himself jobless come September.
Curtis Taylor- FS/SS: Backup
Curtis Taylor faced the unfortunate predicament of playing behind and having to follow the act of All-Star free safety LaRon Landry (the 6th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft).
At most any other Division 1 program, Taylor’s size, speed and instincts would have landed him a starting job as a true freshman.
While only starting for two collegiate seasons, Taylor made the most of his time by flashing a raw ability and potential to play in the NFL.
As a two year starter at LSU, Taylor totaled 112 tackles, two sacks and five interceptions. This included a 43 tackle, one sack and two interception senior year performance.
At 6’2", 209 pounds, Taylor provides a formidable presence to the 49er defensive backfield. His strong frame and inexperience in coverage suggests he’ll likely be moved to strong safety where he’ll provide depth behind Michael Lewis.
In addition to his depth at safety, look for Taylor to fill the special teams role of big-bodied, heat-seeking missile Keith Lewis who departed in free agency this off-season.
Ironically, it’ll likely be Taylor and Roman, two former LSU tigers, who battle it out for the last safety spot. Fortunately for Taylor, his young age (23) will provide a much more desirable long-term solution than the 32-year-old Roman.
If Taylor can flash any play-making ability, look for him to knock off his LSU ancestor.
Lewis Baker- FS/SS: Backup (Practice Squad)
The casual observer of 49er football would cross Baker’s name out in big bold Terrell Owens-licensed sharpie. The unhealthy and fanatical observer of 49er football would do it in pencil.
Those 49er fans who attended training camps, read mini camp reports and watched preseason games down to the last kneel down (you never know what might happen), would know that Lewis Baker is more than just training camp fodder.
Due to a thigh injury that caused him to miss significant portions of training camp, Baker was too unproven a player to invest a roster spot in for 2008. After showing great instincts and ball skills throughout practice and preseason last year, Baker may just have been the toughest decision to let go.
In fact, had the 49ers simply invested a draft pick in him, he likely would have stuck with the team out of principle (and protection of the front office image).
Baker, who played both strong safety and linebacker for the Oklahoma Sooners, was considered a 2008 draft-worthy prospect after earning All-big 12 honorable mention as a senior.
At 6'3", 204 pounds, the former Sooner and Germany native certainly has the size of an NFL safety. At the very least, look for Baker to make the 49ers’ practice squad.