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How 49ers' four safeties fit into future plans

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How 49ers' four safeties fit into future plans

The 49ers are now starting players who began the season as backups at nearly half of the positions on both sides of the ball.

The team’s reliance on depth, in some cases, has highlighted which positions need to be strengthened in the offseason. But at the two safety spots, it has reinforced to the 49ers how much they like the four players who have seen significant action in those roles.

Here is a look at those four players and how they fit into the club’s plans for next season:

ADRIAN COLBERT
There might be no bigger surprise on the team than Colbert, whom the 49ers first tried out at cornerback and expected him to be little more than a contributor on special teams during the regular season.

A seventh-round draft pick, Colbert was overshadowed by undrafted rookie Lorenzo Jerome during training camp. Jerome became expendable early in the season due to his lack of size and speed, as well as his inability to carve out a niche on special teams.

Colbert, the team’s second-leading tackler on special teams, has started three recent games at free safety and has been exceptional with 18 tackles and four passes broken up. His big hit, causing a fourth-quarter fumble of DeAndre Hopkins, helped the 49ers clinch last week’s victory over the Houston Texans.

Colbert has size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), range, aggression and toughness. After undergoing surgery to repair a broken thumb, Colbert insisted on returning to action a week earlier than the 49ers anticipated.

There is also a belief his game will go another level in his second season, as he plays faster with a greater knowledge and comfort level of his responsibilities in the deep middle of the 49ers’ standard cover-3 defense.

The 49ers have Colbert under contract at low levels through the 2020 season. They are allowed to negotiate a extension with him after the 2019 season.

JAQUISKI TARTT
Tartt started the first two games at free safety before moving to strong safety, where he started the next five games before he was forced back to free safety. The 49ers feel comfortable about Tartt’s ability to play either position. He has good coverage skills but his size and physicality probably make him a better fit closer to the line of scrimmage.

Tartt’s season ended in Week 9 with a broken forearm. He was the team’s leading tackler for most of the season with an interception and three passes defended.

The 49ers are allowed to negotiate a multi-year contract with Tartt after this season, and he would appear to be high on their list of priorities to lock up to a contract extension before entering the final year of his deal.

JIMMIE WARD
The 49ers picked up the fifth-year option on Jimmie Ward last offseason, which means he already has a deal in place for 2018. Because he played cornerback last season – and not safety – his one-year price tag for 2018 jumped nearly $3 million from $5.597 million to $8.526 million. Is Ward worth that much money? That's something the 49ers will have to determine. They could get out of the contract before the new league year begins on March 14.

First off, Ward has not proven he can remain healthy. He has been plagued by a variety of injuries. In his first four NFL seasons, he played all 16 games once. He missed a minimum of five games in every other season, including this year when appeared in just seven games before sustaining a fractured forearm.

His scheduled salary for next season is big. But the 49ers have plenty of cap space, and they are required to eventually spend that money. If the dollars allocated to Ward prevents them from acquiring a targeted offensive lineman, wide receiver or pass rusher, then it becomes a problem. But because the 49ers are currently $54.8 million under the cap, which rolls over to next season, that is probably not going to be an issue.

The 49ers could also try to sign Ward to a multiyear contract with an average dollar amount far south of $8.5 million. But the one-year deal for next season allows the 49ers some flexibility because it would be just a one-year commitment and would not have any financial implications beyond the 2018 season.

Another element Ward gives the 49ers is his versatility. He can play cornerback, too. But his best position is free safety. While the 49ers believe he can be a starter-caliber cornerback, they are confident his can be an All-Pro free safety.

With the three players who are under contract for next season – Colbert, Tartt and Ward – there is little doubt each would play and play a lot in 2018. Injuries seem inevitable. But if each remains healthy and available, the presence of three high-caliber safeties would give the defensive coaching staff flexibility to design game plans to best take advantage of matchups.

ERIC REID
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Reid because he is playing this season under the fifth-year option and is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in March. The 49ers like Reid a lot, but they also really like the three aforementioned guys who are already under contract.

When everyone was healthy near the middle of the season, the 49ers settled on Tartt and Ward as the starters and moved Reid to linebacker. Injuries necessitated the move of Reid back to strong safety, where he has found his niche playing close to the line of scrimmage.

The market could determine whether the 49ers bring back Reid. It is uncertain how much – if any – his role in the protest of racial inequality will impact in how other teams assess Reid's free-agent value.

In other words, it is difficult to imagine the 49ers will get into a bidding war for Reid because of the other players they already have at safety. But if the market is soft for Reid, the 49ers would likely welcome him back at the right price.

Dante Pettis' progress clear to 49ers teammates, coaches at minicamp

Dante Pettis' progress clear to 49ers teammates, coaches at minicamp

SANTA CLARA — Dante Pettis turned the right heads at 49ers minicamp last week. 

Quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens, as well as coach Kyle Shanahan, all noticed marked improvement in the receiver ahead of his second NFL season. 

Garoppolo has seen a physical transformation from Pettis. The QB thinks believes that Pettis' added muscle weight will help the receiver on the field. 

“Dante’s body is maturing,” Garoppolo said. “He’s coming out of breaks with power, he has speed. It doesn’t look like he’s moving very fast but really is. It’s a weird thing for a quarterback to get used to. He’s different than most guys running.”  

Garoppolo detailed how visually different Pettis’ speed is when you compare him to what Marquise Goodwin does. 

Those differences even extend to teammate -- and Olympic hopeful -- Marquise Goodwin. Garoppolo said that requires him to adjust when he's targeting Pettis. 

“Where Marquise looks like he’s running really fast, and he is running really fast, where with Dante it’s different,” Garoppolo said. “Being able to get on the same page with him, I think these last few weeks have been very important. 

“It’s just different. It’s hard to describe unless you’re seeing it, but you’re trying to throw it while he’s coming out of a break, but he comes out of break differently than most guys. It’s so hard on the defense that you really just know he’s going to get open, you just don’t want to miss him.”  

Pettis' physical change was clear to Shanahan, too. But Shanahan has also noticed improvements on the mental side, and said he thinks Pettis' hunger to improve is clear. 

“When I saw him the first week he got back to see the size that he had put on, not that he’s going to be real noticeably different to everyone, but he worked while he was gone,” Shanahan said. “He worked while he was away. He tried to get bigger. 

“He worked more at his routes and he came here with the idea of ‘Hey, I’m not just coming here to get better back in shape, I’m coming here to get better.’”

Pettis has said he is more comfortable in the 49ers' offense with a year of experience, and that was clear to Mullens.

“Yeah you can tell,” Mullens said. “You know, Dante has always had the physical talent of being so shaky, making guys miss and routing guys up. Now he doesn’t have to think about the play, he can go naturally do that.
 

“So things are coming very natural for him he’s making a lot of plays out there and it’s great to see. It’s been awesome to see him develop.” 

[RELATED: Will 49ers trade QBs Beathard or Mullens?]

Pettis isn't hesitating, and his confidence is clear. When you combine that with his physical and mental development, the young receiver seems ready to have a bigger role in his second NFL season.

“He’s making a lot of plays, being very consistent, and Dante can set the speed," Mullens said. "I think you guys have been able to see that and so he’s making a lot of plays and he’s a great teammate.” 

Will 49ers look to trade backup QBs C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens?

Will 49ers look to trade backup QBs C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens?

One of the major competitions being waged on the 49ers’ practice field is for a spot the club hopes will never be asked to play a significant role this season.

The 49ers’ hopes for the season hinge in large part on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo playing at a high level for 16 games. Behind him, in a too-close-to-call competition are C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens.

Once training camp opens in late-July, the competition for the backup role will heat up. Mullens outplayed Beathard last year, but all that did was create a level playing field for the competition that will ensue this summer.

This week marked the conclusion of the team’s official offseason program. Here are some questions submitted via Facebook:

What's the likelihood we trade one of our backup QBs to a team that loses a QB to injury? ( David Cummings)
The 49ers have three options:
1. Cut C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens.
2. Keep three QBs on their 53-man roster.
3. Trade Beathard or Mullens.

Of those three options, there is no question the 49ers would rather trade one of their reserve quarterbacks.

I’m of the opinion right now that they are fine with either Beathard or Mullens as the backup to Jimmy Garoppolo. If another team feels a need to add a backup, I believe the 49ers would be open to trading either one – whichever player the other team wants more and will attract the better compensation.

Will Robbie be the starting kicker come the start of the regular season? (Richard Burley)
Robbie Gould has not publicly stated his intention, other than he has demanded a trade. (The 49ers said, in essence, “No, thanks. We want you to be our kicker.”)

It is difficult to imagine that Gould would forfeit more than $290,000 per game. The 49ers expect him to be on the field in Week 1 of the regular season. Jonathan Brown was the only kicker to participate in the offseason program. Right now, he’s their insurance policy.

Is there a possibility after the cutdowns start the 49ers will possibly pick up a savvy veteran guard or center considering the uncertainty and shakiness of our interior offensive line? (John Mayfield)
Based on their approach this offseason, the 49ers do not agree with your description of “uncertainty” and “shakiness” as it pertains to the interior of their offensive line.

There’s always a possibility of picking up someone for depth, but the addition of Ben Garland, who can play both guard and center, likely took care of that.

From what you've seen Matt, which WR has impressed you and the coaching staff the most? (Paul Martinez)
The 49ers’ top-two receivers during the offseason program were Dante Pettis and Trent Taylor. If Taylor remains healthy, he should benefit greatly from the tutelage of new receivers coach Wes Welker.

Considering the size of the front seven on defense are there concerns about our potential to defend against the run with the new Wide 9 scheme? (R.L. Stephens)
That is precisely why the 49ers’ defense now has three smaller, quicker stack linebackers. The Wide 9 is designed for the defensive ends to set the edge quicker to force running backs to cut inside earlier.

It also puts far more pressure on the linebackers to step up and cover more ground to prevent big plays on those plays.

Who is a name that might be a surprise cut before the 53-man roster is made? (Michael Tavares)
If I write the name here, he won’t be a surprise cut, right?

I’ll give you three players to watch. At first, I thought Marquise Goodwin might have a difficult time making the team. But he looked really good during the offseason program, and he does give the 49ers they don’t have anywhere else with his speed.

Veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith will have to earn his way. Elijah Lee and Dre Greenlaw look good, and they have special-teams value, too. Tight end Garrett Celek will be trying to come back from back surgery. I think he faces some pretty big odds at this stage of his career to remain on the team.

[RELATED: Kyle Shanahan believes 49ers can overcome injuries this season]

Who are the starting safeties at the beginning of the season? (Nick Gillo)
Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. (Insert the obligatory, “If healthy.”)

With Shanahan talking about having great depth, predict the biggest 2020 offseason needs. (Jeff Bratton)
I predict the biggest needs for next season will be determined by what happens this season.