San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke completed the quickest signing of his tenure in the Bay Area, inking veteran safety Antoine Bethea to a four-year, $21 million deal, via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
This was particularly newsworthy because it happened within the first hour of free agency and it came at a need position. It was also uncharacteristic of Baalke and the front office. Cap-strapped and looking to extend their own players, most didn’t think the 49ers would be active in free agency—they rarely get too involved.
But with Donte Whitner vacating the strong safety spot, signing a four-year contract with the Cleveland Browns, there was a legitimate opening on the team. Bethea, a two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, joins a team that has a need for experience on the back end of its own prestigious squad.
At first glance, he looks like a nice add-on. Bethea can up-end players, and he has a light enough physique that gives him range. Questions remain, however.
Neither his middle-of-the-road deal or age make him seem like a long-term investment or a prized free-agent acquisition. This is also an organization that builds through the draft and has an exceptional eye for secondary talent. So why Bethea, and why so much emphasis on getting a deal done immediately?
Signs like these are indicators that he filled a very specific criteria.
Let’s take a look at the match and what to make of it.
A Bit About Antoine Bethea…
Weight: 206 lbs.
Drafted: Round 6, 2006
Experience: Ninth season
49ers are doing smart thing replacing Whitner with Bethea. Now will play with essentially two FS— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) March 11, 2014
The Colts' defense was very average last year. Bethea will benefit from more talent around him. Solid vet that can help groom a rookie.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) March 11, 2014
Bethea is a proven commodity. He was a defensive mainstay for the Indianapolis Colts for almost a decade, performing on the demanding teams that were co-captained by quarterback Peyton Manning. He had individual and team success, greatly enhancing his own value.
And being a class act and team leader, he has a wholesome NFL image.
Getting down to the player: Over his career, you see a high volume of tackles while remaining in the lineup unscathed. The 49ers likely value his durability, scrappiness and experience above all else. It’s not like he is any sort of electric playmaker on the back end—this is a safe choice.
Bethea has not missed a game since 2007 (96 straight starts), playing just under 99 percent of the Colts’ defensive snaps the last four seasons, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. So they’re protected with him.
And they like the downhill style that comes with.
As the backbone and one of the enforcers on that defense, this was a player that was constantly in the mix. Pass or run, he was involved. In 2013, Bethea was in the box on 37.3 percent of run plays, which was nearly 16 percent more than Whitner had been in San Francisco.
They know the ex-Colt is fearless. In 2011 through 2013, Bethea was First, T-12th and T-fifth in tackles among NFL safeties. He’s had 100-plus tackles in his last four seasons, so they understand he’s very active playing the run. They couldn’t sign or draft any defensive back that wouldn’t engage.
Rule No. 1 to play on this defense is wrap up/stop the run.
The 49ers can count on him to be physical and not shy away from contact, while at the same time, providing exceptional leadership. These are great qualities to have, but there’s a reason the 29-year-old doesn’t crack the top-15 earners at his position. He does have deficiencies.
Most can start by looking at a Colts secondary that looked quite vulnerable at times.
In his last year in Indianapolis, Bethea received a -2.9 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, which was 53rd among qualified safeties. Narrowing down his performance, he was on the positive side versus the run, really helping in that regard, but allowed a 103.1 QB rating in coverage.
Any negatives about Bethea come with his ability to consistently protect the deep part of the field.
He let up a whopping 24 catches on 36 targets with four touchdowns in coverage. He did add two picks and five breakups to his career total, but was vulnerable for the most part.
For the sake of transparency, Whitner collected three interceptions and tallied seven deflections, while only allowing a 61.8 passer rating when targeted, via Chris Biderman of Scout.com.
Most notably is the 40-plus point differential in allowed QB rating between Bethea and Whitner in 2013.
The 49ers are getting the leadership and sure tackling with Antoine Bethea, but they’re gambling on the coverage aspect. That’s the roll of the dice. They’re hoping he performs better with secondary coach Ed Donatell and this attacking 3-4 front, which he may, but it is an uncertainty.
Whitner is out, period. He’s now a top-10-paid safety in Cleveland. Obviously this put the team in a bind, creating a fresh project for them. They’re looking for a new long-term solution, but they also needed to make up for some of Whitner’s more important qualities right away.
To fix it, this may take two players over a couple years.
But with Whitner having been the leader of the 49ers secondary unit—and cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown also on the outs, respectively—the lack of experience really jumped out here more than anything. Having a battle-hardened vet may trump a talented youngster right now.
Bethea is polished, and whether he starts or not, this is what this defense needed. They had to have someone that’s seen live action. The upside of this signing is the fact that he’s still playing good football, but he can also help educate the secondary and communicate the calls on the field, as Whitner did.
Nevertheless, Bethea’s starting status is up in the air because culturally, this team is built around competition. Everyone earns their spot.
As the most lucrative free-agent signing last year, most thought Glenn Dorsey was a surefire pick for the starting job at nose tackle. But undrafted free-agent Ian Williams, extended on a smaller deal, made a case and won the job in camp. Never mind that Dorsey is earning 100 percent more than Williams.
The best player will play.
Furthermore, the 49ers aren’t going to ignore the safety position in the draft with more than 10 picks. They have to select somebody, and safety makes as much sense as any. Washington State’s Deone Bucannon, Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward all stand out as potential early-round picks.
Bethea’s one real advantage will be his experience and aura in the NFL.
New 49ers S Antoine Bethea will immediately become a leader in that defensive backfield. "Smart, hard-working and steady" are the words.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) March 11, 2014
All he has to do, essentially, is be a leader and not make mistakes.
But if a talented playmaker rises from the depths or Bethea makes mistakes in coverage, then the 49ers could view it as an opportunity to plug in their rookie and inevitable successor. Realize that Bethea isn’t the end-all-be-all at the position—this smells like a short-term solution.
This is why the language in his four-year deal matters. It can be something else altogether with how its structured.
And this staff will not hesitate to make a change. Quarterback Alex Smith, linebacker Parys Haralson and defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga are just a few of the players that can vouch for the competitive environment and lack of loyalty. There’s no such thing as job security in San Francisco.
Bargain-basement shopper Baalke strikes again.
This signing may be even more brilliant than it looks. The 49ers may have gotten a very good veteran, under 30 years old, to agree to what is probably a one or two-year deal in the end. And if Bethea starts this year, and possibly in 2015 as well, this is still a very good signing.
It’s an able-bodied player at a position of need that will help them transition over time.
Before Bethea signed on with the team, cornerback Chris Culliver (25), cornerback Tramaine Brock (25) and safety Eric Reid (22) were the most decorated players in the secondary, so he adds a layer of polish and personnel flexibility during a time of restructuring and hands-on development.
They can go in any direction from here on out.