Maybe Mike Nolan is spoiled. He coached one of the best safeties in the league – Ed Reed – when he was in Baltimore, and perhaps that experience has made him more demanding about what he expects from the position. After arriving in San Francisco in 2005, Nolan went through a number of safety tandems – Tony Parrish, Mike Rumph, Ben Emmanuel, Mike Adams – before settling on one he liked (Mark Roman and Michael Lewis) this year. And indeed, the tandem proved to be the best the 49ers have had in years. But while the 49ers’ secondary was solid, it lacked sizzle. The 49ers finished with only 12 interceptions in 2007, two of which were turned in by a safety. Only three teams – Houston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – had fewer.
Dashon Goldson. Aside from Patrick Willis and Joe Staley, no rookie played as much this season as fourth rounder Dashon Goldson, who took part in 10 games. Goldson was moved from safety to cornerback during his senior season at Washington and showed very good coverage skills during spring practices with the 49ers. In fact, Goldson may be the best ball hawk of all the 49ers’ safeties. Goldson’s season, however, got off to a slow start when he suffered ligament damage in his right elbow during a preseason game against the Raiders. He backed up starter Mark Roman at times but saw most of his action on special teams. Goldson’s best game came on Nov. 4 against Atlanta when he was given the Top Gun award for most outstanding special teams player that week. The 49ers hope the tall and long-limbed Goldson becomes an asset in pass defense, and he will look to leapfrog Keith Lewis in the safety pecking order in 2008.
Keith Lewis. Along with linebacker Brandon Moore, Lewis led a defensive resurgence when he was inserted into the starting lineup in 2006. Lewis finished second (to Moore) in total tackles that season (despite just nine starts) and also had two interceptions, six pass defenses, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Lewis, however, lost his starting spot when the 49ers signed Michael Lewis in the offseason. Keith Lewis is tough (he’s the rare defender who never wears gloves), savvy and rarely is out of position. The one thing he lacks, however, is speed, and the 49ers believe that shortcoming makes him a liability in pass coverage. Still, the fact that a sixth-round draft pick by a previous coaching regime is still on the team is impressive. Lewis is a fantastic special teams performer who has shown a knack for blocking punts. He did, however, miss four games this past season with a severe hamstring tear, the first time the heretofore indestructible safety has been slowed by injuries.
Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis’ signing last March left some people scratching their heads. Lewis, after all, didn’t have a good reputation as a pass defender and he had lost his starting job in Philadelphia the year prior. It turns out that the Eagles weren’t taking advantage of his strengths. In Philadelphia, the Eagles played Lewis in deep coverage – not the best spot for a 226-pound safety – while the free safety made plays all over the field. The 49ers reversed that arrangement, giving Mark Roman a lot of the coverage duties so that Lewis was more free to move about. Lewis rewarded that maneuver with 104 tackles, second on the team to linebacker Patrick Willis. Lewis is nearly as big as a linebacker and after making a tackle it’s sometimes hard to tell if the No. 2 on the bottom of the pile belongs to Lewis (No. 32) or to Willis (No. 52). Lewis may not be one of the top safeties in the league, but his skill set is perfect for the 49ers’ scheme.
Mark Roman. The 49ers acquired Roman just before the start of the 2006 season. His former team, the Green Bay Packers, had picked up safety Marquand Manuel in the offseason and Roman was released just before the start of training camp. But while Manuel turned out to be a bust in Green Bay – he was released after the 2006 season – Roman eventually earned a starting spot in San Francisco and solidified it this season. He finished with 62 tackles and earned the confidence of Nolan, who has very high expectations for his safeties. The problem with Roman is the problem with the 49ers’ defense in general. While he was solid in every area, he was not flashy and did not make many momentum-changing plays. He finished the season with four passes defended, no interceptions, no forced fumbles and no fumble recoveries. That’s a lot of no’s for someone who started all 16 games.
Next: We have yet to review the running backs, receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks. But we’re hoping a week at the Senior Bowl (and a conversation with Mike Martz) will give us a little more insight into those positions. Stay tuned …
-- Matt Barrows.