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February 15, 2009
Safety first as 49ers head into free agency

NFL teams are packing their bags this week for their annual trip to Indianapolis, which ostensibly is a time to look at college players but is also an opportunity to hone strategies for free agency, which is only 11 days away. Until then, I'll be looking at the positions the 49ers likely will target in free agency, including safety, right tackle, fullback and quarterback.

Free safety: By now, everyone knows that Mark Roman, the team's starting free safety for the past thee years, hasn't had an interception in more than two seasons. In fact, Roman only has seven picks over his nine-year career. By contrast, Baltimore's Ed Reed has 43 career picks and has been in the league two fewer seasons. Roman is the brain center of the defense, the guy who wears the radio receiver, calls the plays and gets the secondary lined up. And in that regard, he is very good. But he lacks ball skills, something the best safeties -- indeed the best defenses - in the league possess.

Before talking about potential free agents, it's worth looking at other options already on the team. No one on the 49ers makes more practice interceptions than Dashon Goldson. The two-year veteran has height (6-2), size (200-plus pounds), is not shy about hitting and has great coverage ability. Those attributes seem to make him an ideal free safety. What he has going against him, however, are youth and a penchant for injuries. Goldson suffered injuries to both shoulders in college and began his senior season at Washington with a high-ankle sprain. He dealt with an elbow injury right off the bat as a rookie with the 49ers. This past season, he left the Week Two game at Seattle with a knee injury, had to leave the Week Three game against Detroit with a shoulder injury, then left the Week Seven game against the Giants with a knee injury that knocked him out for the next seven games. In short, Goldson has flashed plenty of potential but he's not a guy the 49ers can rely on to man the oh-so-important free safety spot going into 2009.

Reliability also is a question mark - a big question mark - for newly acquired Jimmy Williams. What's been underreported since the 49ers obtained Williams last month is that they're looking at him not as a cornerback but as a safety. Like Goldson, there's no denying Williams - a standout cornerback at Virginia Tech - has talent. What he's lacked so far is self-discipline and motivation. Character issues dropped him to a second-round pick by the Falcons in 2006 and those concerns turned out to be legitimate. He was cut in June after showing up for spring workouts overweight. Williams played cornerback his rookie season but was moved to safety -- where he also played early on at Virginia Tech -- for 2007. He proved to be a disappointment at that position, was an indifferent special teams performer and was deactivated for two games at the end of the season. Has Williams reversed course? That's what the 49ers are hoping. At the very least, he's gotten back in shape, weighing 220 pounds when the 49ers worked him out this winter. Williams, who stands 6-3, weighed 216 pounds as a rookie in Atlanta.

Potential free agents who could interest the 49ers:

  • Oshiomogho Atogwe, Rams - Atogwe is a four-year veteran who has started every game for the Rams the last three seasons. He's young enough - 27 - to go after with a big free-agent contract, and, perhaps more important, has the ball skills that Roman lacks. Atogwe had eight interceptions in 2007 and five last season. He had one interception in the 49ers last-minute 17-16 win in St. Louis in December and nearly picked off the game-winning touchdown pass to Josh Morgan. Many believe Atogwe is the top safety destined for free agency. The question is whether the Rams will let their rising star hit the market.
  • Jim Leonhard, Ravens - Leonhard, 26, is a savvy player who made a splash in the playoffs for the Ravens with an interception, a half a sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and 16 tackles in three memorable games. He played strong safety for Baltimore this past season but played free safety earlier in his career in Buffalo. He also wore the defensive radio receiver for much of the season in Baltimore, something he would likely do if he joined the 49ers. The negatives on Leonhard are all about his size -- 5-8, 186 pounds - and lack of top speed, which is perhaps why the Ravens made him into a strong safety. Leonhard went undrafted in 2005.
  • James Sanders, Patriots - Sanders is young, 25, but started 29 games at free safety for the Patriots the last two seasons. The former Fresno State Bulldog also is from California - Porterville - which could help if the 49ers are interested. He has just five interceptions over his career.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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