In his first season with the 49ers, veteran safety Antoine Bethea was voted the team’s most valuable player.
After his second season, he reportedly was on the trading block.
In the NFL, after all, jobs are just temporary. Even smart, productive players such as Bethea can quickly become expendable because of injuries, the salary cap or the whims of the front office or coaching staff.
Bethea, who played just seven games in 2015 because of an injury – the first time he’d missed any games since his second NFL season in 2007 – was rumored to be on his way out in San Francisco back in early April. That’s when Peter King of Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback wrote that Bethea had been deemed a potential trading chip, along with retired offensive tackle Anthony Davis (who was rumored to be coming back).
Conor orr of NFL.com noted at the time of the trade speculation that it might make sense, because Bethea was coming off a torn-pectoral injury and the Niners might be able to get additional draft picks for Bethea and Davis to re-stock the roster. But, wondered Orr, would new head coach Chip Kelly – who traded away some top talent in Philadelphia – “be vilified … if a trade goes down and they succeed elsewhere or if the team struggles at right tackle and safety?”
Now, two months later, Bethea is still with the team and participating in organized team activities (OTAs) and Davis is still retired.
And, though the starting job at right offensive tackle is still a question mark for the 49ers, Bethea combines with Eric Reid to give the 49ers a strong tandem at safety. With Bethea healthy again, in fact, safety is a rare position of strength for the 49ers.
New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil this week said the two have been performing at a high level in OTAs and are team leaders in the transition to a new defensive system.
“Bethea and Eric Reid are very, very smart football players,” O’Neil told reporters this week. “And with this being the fourth time I’ve been part of an organization installing this system, those guys are further ahead than any other safety group that I’ve been a part of so far.”
Having Bethea back in the lineup will be a huge boost for a defense that could feature several new starters in 2016, said Reid.
“He just sees everything,” Reid told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “He sees it fast. You see a formation, he’s lined up and he’s already called stuff out. I’m looking at him like, ‘All right,’ and then they do what he says.”
It’s possible that keeping Bethea rather than trading him might prove to be one of general manager Trent Baalke’s best moves this offseason.