What a difference a year makes for Eric Reid.
Reid was a superstar in Baton Rouge, La. The former LSU Tiger safety's immense talent and football IQ got him drafted in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers. He joined an elite defense that had made the Super Bowl the year before.
Reid made an immediate impact. His sideline-to-sideline athleticism gave opposing offenses headaches. The rookie finished with an impressive 77 tackles and four interceptions.
But there were questions before the season whether he would be a productive pro.
In 2011, he emerged as one of the best safeties in the country en route to an undefeated regular season. In 2012, Reid would be named a consensus All-American. He would leave LSU despite remaining eligibility.
Despite earning numerous postseason honors in his final season at LSU, he made uncharacteristic mistakes throughout the season. He was burned on deep- and intermediate-passing routes and sometimes took horrible tackling angles in the open field. This was evident against bad teams like North Texas and against great teams like Alabama and Ole Miss.
Reid was bashed by those who followed LSU closely, including myself. But after a closer look, he was too harshly criticized for the Tigers' struggles in the secondary.
Before the 2012 season even began, Reid lost top teammate Tyrann Mathieu the same year LSU acquired a new secondary coach in Corey Raymond. This raised the expectations and weight Reid had to carry, which clearly made him try too hard to make plays.
But LSU's putrid secondary this season was more than enough proof for why Reid struggled. He had to carry them on his back.
Defensive backs Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins, Micah Eugene, Ronald Martin and Craig Loston returned in 2013 after playing with Reid in his final season. All of them struggled mightily without their leader.
LSU gave up five more touchdowns, had five less interceptions and gave up an average of 10 more yards per game in 2013 without Reid.
As cliche as it might sound, LSU's secondary struggles were more mental than they were physical. The Tigers would consistently blow coverages due to bad communication. Reid was the quarterback of the secondary during his time at LSU, making coverage calls and aligning his teammates before and after the snap.
In 2011, he played in one of the greatest secondaries ever assembled. It featured two first-team All-Americans in Mathieu and Morris Claiborne. Reid also had sure-tackling playmakers Brandon Taylor, Ron Brooks and Tharold Simon by his side.
This season, Reid played alongside an experienced 49ers secondary. This made the transition easy for him. He also had the aide of a fierce pass rush from his defensive line.
When Reid has reliable teammates, it allows him to have more freedom to make plays. When he does not, he makes mistakes.
Reid did have his struggles which would sometimes flash back to his porous junior season at LSU. In the NFC Championship Game loss against the Seahawks, he jumped too early on a Doug Baldwin reception and missed an open-field tackle on a Marshawn Lynch touchdown run.
Which former LSU defensive back will have a better NFL career?
But Reid's rookie mistakes should not overshadow his overall fantastic rookie season.
San Francisco barely missed a beat when it lost head-hunting safety Dashon Goldson. Reid earned admirable grades early in the season from Pro Football Focus. Even former 49ers Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott enjoyed what he saw from the rookie.
Reid had the good fortune of being drafted into a great situation. The 49ers perfectly fit his mold as a hard-nosed safety. He has a bright future in San Francisco, which should make LSU fans proud of the Dutchtown native.
Reid's solid play at safety in the NFL's toughest conference, and LSU's struggles without him show his immense value in the secondary. But the same could be said about Mathieu, who was spectacular in his rookie season for the Arizona Cardinals.
The most interesting question that remains is who will end up having the best NFL career between the two.
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