The 49ers gambled this past offseason when they allowed safety Dashon Goldson to leave in free agency.
Goldson, a proven veteran with a knack for making big hits, had been a key component of an outstanding defense in the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Five games into the 2013 season, it’s looking like the 49ers’ gamble is a winner.
Rookie Eric Reid, taken with the 18th overall choice in the first round of the April draft out of LSU, won the starting assignment to replace Goldson in this summer’s training camp and now is showing that he, too, can be a big hitter and playmaker at safety the way Goldson was.
Reid, however, is just 21 and far less costly to the 49ers' salary structure.
In Sunday’s 34-3 victory over the Houston Texans at Candlestick Park, Reid made several big hits, had a season-high eight tackles and broke up a pass – that could have been his third interception of the season. With the 49ers intent on stopping the Texans’ strong running game, Reid was a key factor Sunday night, coming up numerous times to stop running backs Arian Foster or Ben Tate.
His only notable mistake was the pass from Texans quarterback Matt Schaub that he broke to, in front of the intended receiver, only to drop.
“It was great to seee him diagnose the play,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told the team’s website after the game. “I’m sure he wishes he would have caught the ball, but it was great to see him break on the ball and be in that kind of position. Once you do it, then you get the confidence that you can do that again.”
Reid had interceptions in each of his first two NFL games, against the Packers and Seahawks, and had seven tackles in his pro debut vs. Green Bay in the season opener. In five games, Reid has 24 tackles, four passes defensed and the two interceptions.
Reid has become comfortable playing alongside Donte Whitner (soon to be Hitner), and credits his veteran safetymate for helping to teach him the intricacies of the position in the NFL.
“We have veteran guys like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, but Donte is a safety so he knows what I’m going through on a play-to-play basis,” Reid told Ross Jones of Fox Sports. “He’s definitely taken me under his wing. He’s another coach for me. We have great coaches on the team, but he’s given me a player perspective on things. He’s always telling me how I can do something better or something to look out for on the field.”
Most NFL scouts believed Reid could be strong against the run in the NFL, but some had doubts about his coverage skills. Though he’s had some rough spots, the 49ers like the way Reid’s complete game has grown.
“Steady progress,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, of what Reid showed to win the starting safety job over veteran newcomer Craig Dahl. “He’s gotten better and better each and every day. …. He’s grown into the position, which has allowed his ability to come through more and more.”
Reid will get his next opportunity this Sunday, when the Arizona Cardinals (3-2) play the 49ers (3-2) at Candlestick Park.