SANTA CLARA Three months ago, the 49ers not only climbed 13 spots in the first round to draft a safety, they took one who was strikingly similar to the starter they lost in free agency, Dashon Goldson.
Still, coaches are making sure their top pick, Eric Reid, doesn't feel too cozy.
Vic Fangio emphasized Friday that Reid, taken 18th overall, would have to work hard to land a starting role. Fangio also noted that since he took over as defensive coordinator two years ago, no rookie on that side of the ball has started a game for San Francisco.
"If you go back to when we drafted Aldon Smith, who was the, I think, the seventh pick of the draft, he didn't (play) as a nickel rusher until after the last preseason game, which is when he actually went out and won that job," Fangio said. "So nothing was given to Aldon that year, and nothing's going to be given to Eric this year."
Since the draft, the conventional wisdom has pitted Reid against free-agent acquisition Craig Dahl, a five-year veteran, in the battle to replace Goldson at free safety. In fact, Fangio said it's a four-man race among Dahl, Reid, C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson.
Fangio saved his highest praise for Robinson, an undersized but tenacious safety the 49ers took in the sixth round last season. Fangio said Robinson is "taking his job more seriously" this year, which was evident during the 49ers' spring practices.
"And (he has) the urgency of, 'Hey, I need to make this team,' " Fangio said. "Whereas I don't think he felt that urgency last year, and I don't think he was as mature last year."
Safety is perhaps the most mentally demanding and comprehensive position on defense, and Robinson said he simply has a better grasp of the playbook and a stronger understanding of how to react than he did a year ago. He cited veterans Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and especially Donte Whitner, the starter at strong safety, for helping him.
"Our veterans back there know there's not a lot of experience on the team at safety," Robinson said. "I sit next to Donte, and he's always there. It doesn't matter what I need or what's going on. He's mentally there he's always there to help."
Learning the playbook has not been an issue with Reid. He graduated from high school with a 4.6 grade-point average, and he has said that studying was drilled into him by his hard-working parents.
"The learning and mental side of the game will not be an issue for him," Fangio said. "Now, he's still a rookie. The speed of the game, recognizing offensive concepts, reacting to different formations and plays he's still a rookie. But the mental part of the game will be a plus for him."
Whitner had a similar comment, saying Reid already may know the playbook better than some of the veterans on the squad.
But he, too, stopped short of handing the rookie a starting role. Reid will improve through competition, and there is plenty of it in training camp this year, Whitner said.
"We expect whoever takes that spot to jump in and play like an All-Pro," Whitner said. "And there's going to be a lot of pressure on whoever gets it. Maybe it's by committee. We don't know, but something is going to happen, and one of those guys is going to emerge as the best safety. I look forward to seeing who it is."