Looking ahead to training camp, there are seven position battles that stand out in my mind. Yesterday I wrote about the struggle to be the 49ers' No. 3 running back, a competition in which incumbent Maurice Hicks promises to have a tough time holding off challenger Thomas Clayton.
Today, I'll look at the safety position where Mark Roman, Michael Lewis and Keith Lewis appear to have the top three spots locked up. Could the team keep as many as five safeties? It's certainly possible, but with a logjam at cornerback - Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Shawntae Spencer, Marcus Hudson and Tarell Brown - it looks like the 49ers only will have room for four safeties. And that means a battle between second-year player Vickiel Vaughn and rookie Dashon Goldson.
Last summer, I attended a charity basketball game in San Jose that pitted the 49ers against the Raiders. The team from Oakland was loaded. Not only did it have Randy Moss, who was twice named the high school basketball player of the year in West Virginia, the Raider point guard was Ronald Curry who, if you'll remember, played a little basketball at Chapel Hill. (Author's note: Benedict Ronald originally committed to play football at my alma mater, UVA, but rescinded and went to rival UNC. It still stings.)
Despite the Raiders' star power, the 49ers ultimately won the game thanks to the play of one of the most obscure players on the court -- Vaughn. The 49ers' very last pick of the 2006 draft grew up playing basketball in Arkansas and had to be pretty good to keep up with his younger sisters, both of whom play for the Lady Razorbacks. The point is that Vaughn is extremely athletic. And at 6-1, 204 pounds and with long arms, he has the ideal body for safety.
The 49ers liked what they saw from Vaughn last summer before he tore a tendon in his finger and was placed on injured reserve. Vaughn was supposed to play in NFL Europe this spring but missed a month with a broken hand. He returned stateside for the final week of OTAs but was not able to participate.
While Vaughn was making his trans-Atlantic trips, Goldson was turning heads during the 49ers' spring practices. Picked in the fourth round this past April, Goldson stood out more than any other rookie. He played cornerback last season at the University Washington, which likely accounts for his smooth coverage skills. He had two interceptions during OTAs in which he got a good break on the ball and - not so easy for someone who is 6-2, 208 pounds - easily slid in front of the receiver for the catch.
What's even more promising, according to coach Mike Nolan, is that Goldson enters the league with a reputation as a strong tackler, something he wasn't able to show off during the non-contact spring sessions. If Goldson stays healthy and continues to progress, he will be very difficult to beat out.
Vaughn also has to contend with the disparity in their draft status. Both are eligible for the practice squad. However, it's hard to imagine Goldson, a fourth rounder, landing on the practice squad and not being scarfed up by another team. The 49ers would be more assured that Vaughn, the 254th overall pick in 2006, would remain untouched.
-- Matt Barrows