San Francisco 49ers

49ers look ahead: Team stacked at safety, but injury issues lurk

Video: San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Preview

Matt Barrows talks about the three things he'll have his eye on when 49ers training camp begins later this week. Video by Manny Crisostomo.
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Matt Barrows talks about the three things he'll have his eye on when 49ers training camp begins later this week. Video by Manny Crisostomo.

Over the next week, I’m ranking the 49ers position groups from strongest to weakest. Next up ...

Safety

Recap: The 49ers acquired Anquan Boldin in the 2013 offseason, and by the end of the year coaches voted him the team's MVP. Last year, the scenario repeated itself with safety Antoine Bethea, who was every bit the sturdy professional he was billed to be when they 49ers signed him to a four-year deal. The 49ers' safety duo -- Bethea and Eric Reid -- may not have the flair and fame of its Seattle counterpart, but the two give stability to San Francisco's defensive backfield, which is critical as the team is on its second pair of starting cornerbacks for the second straight year. The 49ers led the league in interceptions a year ago. Bethea, 30, had four, which tied his career high. Reid had three. What's more, the team has depth at the position. The 49ers used a first-round pick in 2014 on Jimmie Ward, a potential starting free safety who began the season as the nickel corner before going on injured reserve with a foot fracture. In May they used a second-round pick on Ward's former high-school teammateJaquiski Tartt, who has potential as a strong safety. Veteran Craig Dahl has been a reliable fill in recent years and was the 49ers' top special teams player a year ago. However, the 49ers are hoping that physical youngster L.J. McCray can develop into the sort of coverage ace C.J. Spillman was for them until last season.

Outlook: As long as everyone is healthy, Bethea and Reid will continue to start and Ward at least will be the first option at nickel cornerback. General manager Trent Baalke, however, has hinted that the nickel spot could be more matchup-oriented than it was in recent seasons. That is, if 6-7 Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham is lining up in the slot, the team could use a taller player (perhaps 6-2 cornerback Dontae Johnson) or a more physical player (perhaps 221-pount Tartt) to cover him. Tartt is interesting because he is a safety with size approaching that of a linebacker. He's aggressive and a good tackler. The 49ers could send him into games in dime packages, a formation they are bound to use against, say, Green Bay.

Question marks. Reid, 23, has suffered three concussions in the last two seasons. Given that two other young 49ers, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis, retired due to concussion concerns, the 49ers at least must wonder about Reid's long-term future. ... Ward, meanwhile, aggravated the foot injury he suffered in college while playing on the Louisiana Superdome's artificial surface Nov. 9. According to Ward, he bent the titanium screw that was inserted into his foot after the initial injury occurred. A bigger screw was inserted to replace the original one and Ward has not practiced since. However, he is expected to take part in training camp.

Person of interest: Eric Reid. The 49ers have already had two young, very talented players retire in their early 20s due to concussion concerns. Reid, 23, has made no hints in this regard, but you have to wonder how he'd react to a fourth head injury in three years. He's smart, responsible, the team's union representative and one of the young players who have stepped forward to grab a leadership position. That is, losing Reid would be a tremendous blow.

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49ers position ranking:

1. outside linebacker

2. safety

3. Coming Sunday

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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