The question I heard most at San Francisco 49ers press conferences throughout the 2012 seaon? If we’re excluding queries about Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, it would go something like this: “How much has it helped to have safeties who set the tone with their physical play?” It’s true, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner have blown up several players over the years. At times, the fear shown by opposing wide receivers and tight ends has been palpable.
If launching your body at unsuspecting players in the middle of the field was the most important part of being a safety, the 49ers would have a pretty easy decision this offseason. Either place the franchise tag on Goldson or sign him to a long-term extension, and keep Whitner at his current cap number of over $4.9 million.
According to Matt Maiocco, the Goldson part of that equation looks unlikely:
As reported on Sunday, the 49ers are leaning toward not placing the franchise tag on safety Dashon Goldson. If the 49ers do not change their mind in the next week, that means the club probably would not be able to retain him if he hits the free-agent market. One possible reason why the 49ers are prepared to let Goldson walk, at this point, is that this is considered a strong draft class for prospects who play the safety position.
Tangent alert: if you check out the article Maiocco linked to, you’ll find this gem of a quote:
When asked if the 49ers plan to use the franchise tag this offseason, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said, “(I) don’t have an answer for that. Whether we use the tag or not, I really don’t know at this point. I think I do know, but I’m not willing to share it at this time.”
If you could put one thing in a time capsule to represent this offseason — check that, how the current 49ers regime handles the media in general — you could do a lot worse than that last paragraph.
Maiocco is correct, as usual. There are plenty of safety prospects in the 2013 NFL Draft, guys like USC’s T.J. McDonald (Tim’s son) and the guy with the coolest name I’ve seen in a while: Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo. Walter Football has the 49ers using their first round pick to add Jonathan Cyprien, a hard-hitting safety from Florida Southern who, according to Niners Nation’s scouting report, “fits in the mold of Goldson and Whitner, in that he likes to blow players up on the tackle.”
After the season, Jim Harbaugh had this to say when asked about Goldson, who made it clear about an hour earlier in the 49ers locker room that he did not want to get tagged again:
“He’s somebody that you reward. He plays every game. Can find the ball. You know when he’s out there. Opposing offenses know that he’s out there. He tackles, does everything that you’d want a safety to do. And yeah, I feel like you reward those type of people. Who do you reward? You want to reward those type of people.”
Harbaugh is such a stickler when it comes to language, so I’m tempted to think that by “you” he means other teams. That’s probably looking too deeply; just because he didn’t say “We want to reward those type of people” doesn’t necessarily mean the 49ers won’t sign Goldson long-term. However, if the 49ers are truly serious about adding a No. 1 cornerback it’s hard to see them paying a safety top-five money.
Maiocco also thinks the 49ers are going to keep Carlos Rogers, who’s slated to make $5.85 million in 2013 and has a cap figure of over $7 million next season. If they sign a top-tier corner and keep Rogers, a possible next step would be moving Chris Culliver to safety, the position he almost held during his rookie season.
Add Whitner’s difficulties in coverage and a salary/cap figure which isn’t exactly low, and there’s reason to believe the continuity we saw among the 49ers’ defensive starters could be in jeopardy next season. After the 49ers allowed an average of 306 passing yards per game and 8.1 yards per attempt in the playoffs, that might not necessarily be a bad thing. With the NFL emphasizing offense (especially through the air) and deemphasizing big hits via financial penalties (which Goldson knows all too well), San Francisco may want to change things so that next year, one of the most oft-heard questions goes something like, “How much has it helped to have a secondary that allows very few big plays?”