When the 49ers open training camp this coming weekend, one area of focus will be the secondary.
With two veteran cornerbacks now departed via free agency, there’s a question mark attached to new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s pass-coverage group.
Fortunately for Mangini, he has safety Antoine Bethea.
The veteran was voted as the team’s most valuable player in 2014 in his first season with the team following eight seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Though it was a discouraging season for the 49ers defense, Bethea proved to be a rock. His play was consistently smart and steady, and he should again be a reason for optimism in 2015.
Kevin Lynch, who covers the 49ers for the San Francisco Chronicle, noted recently that Bethea wasn’t the flashy, big-hitting presence at safety that Donte Whitner was before him, but, “Unlike his predecessor … Bethea understands how to avoid a drive-extending personal-foul penalty.”
Bethea and fellow starter Eric Reid, in fact, lead a safety group that is among the deepest among all positions on the roster, which should help a cornerback corps that will be determined through competition over the coming six weeks. Along with Bethea and Reid are veteran Craig Dahl, two young players taken high in the 2014 and 2015 drafts (Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt) and special teams standout L.J. McCray.
Bethea is an often-overlooked piece of the 49ers defense, as they hope to rebound from a disappointing 2014. This offseason, the focus has been on adding pass rushers, replacing departed veterans in the front seven (Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Ray McDonald) and the coming competition at cornerback.
But Bethea went to the Pro Bowl last season because of terrific, all-around play. He intercepted four passes, broke up 10 passes, forced a fumble, was in on 86 tackles and had a sack.
This week, writer Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com’s Grantland included Bethea on his list of the top 100 players in the NFL, at No. 93. Barnwell noted he was a smart, mid-market signing by general manager Trent Baalke who paid big dividends.
“(He) was arguably San Francisco’s best player after signing a four-year, $21 million deal in March,” Barnwell wrote. “The middle of the market rarely delivers value, but the 49ers have repeatedly found useful safeties in free agency, both with Bethea and the man he replaced, Donte Whitner.”