A below .500 record for the first time under Jim Harbaugh, and still, one could argue that this San Francisco 49ers defense and special teams have held up their end. In contrast to messy-looking performances by the offense, those two phases have done enough in the first three quarters of play the last two weeks for the team to win.
Even with injuries on defense to Chris Culliver, Ian Williams and now Patrick Willis.
Truth be told, if the offense wasn’t asphyxiating itself with a pass-heavy approach and had managed to find a rhythm by means of a balanced attack, this team might be 3-0 or, at the very least, 2-1. But that is neither here nor there.
After ridiculing and roasting this offensive staff and the total lack of confluence of late between the running and passing games, I am finally ready to stand up and recognize one of San Francisco’s breakthrough players this season. The team has tolerated enough negative feedback for one week and could use some relief.
That said, one of the shining stars over this dark two-week period—a player who has helped keep this team in ball games and, in its only win of the season, stole the defensive spotlight—has been 49ers' rookie safety Eric Reid, the No. 18 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
He fit right into a defense laced with Pro Bowlers—and then he stood out.
His play has been fluid, and he's looked eager to be involved in the action, greatly fulfilling expectations so far this season. Not to mention, the whirlwind of nitpicky questions surrounding Reid as he looked to enter the NFL seem almost completely irrelevant at this point.
He has silenced the doubters, appearing to be one of the league's bright young defensive stars and maybe the next perennial Pro Bowl safety in the NFL. Let's take a look at the up-and-comer's journey to date, starting back at April's draft and proceeding through Week 3 of the 2013 season.
Eric Reid’s Draft Card
Projected: Unanimous, Round 1
Weight: 213 lbs.
40-Time: 4.49 sec.
10-Split: 1.53 sec.
Bench (225 lbs.): 17 reps
Scouting Notes (via Rob Rang, CBS Sports)
- Possesses the prototypical frame for the position, boasting wide shoulders, long arms and a tapered frame.
- A fantastic downhill athlete with quick read-and-react ability to attack the play with steam spurting from his ears.
- He might be the explosive hitter from the safety position in the 2013 draft, closing with the speed and physicality of a linebacker rather than a defensive back.
- Possesses the size and athleticism combination teams are desperate to find to counter the hybrid receiver/tight ends taking over the seams.
- Accelerates surprisingly well for his length and has good straight-line speed, overall.
- Physical with receivers downfield and plays 50-50 balls well, using his size and strength to his advantage.
- He is a bit stiff in coverage and can be beaten by quicker slot receivers.
- Plays with nonstop aggressiveness and intensity, but he doesn't always control that hostility in a smart way on the football field (i.e., tends to whiff).
- Recovery speed will be questioned, might be tough for him to catch NFL receivers if he takes a false step.
Accolades (via LSU Sports)
- 2012 First Team All-American (AFCA Coaches, FWAA, ESPN, ESPN.com, Scout.com)
- 2012 Second Team All-American (AP, Walter Camp, Athlon Sports, CBSsports.com, SI.com)
- 2012 All-SEC First Team (AP, Coaches, CBSsports.com, ESPN.com)
- 2012 SEC Academic Honor Roll
- 2011 Second-Team All-American (Rivals.com)
- 2011 Second-Team All-Southeastern Conference (AP)
- 2011 FWAA/Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week (at Alabama)
- 2011 Rivals.com National Defensive Player of the Week (at Alabama)
- 2011 SEC Defensive Player of the Week (at Alabama)
- 2011 SEC Academic Honor Roll
The book on Reid was that whichever team selected him was going to wind up with a surefire banger. However, with his long, stiff frame, as well as the cushy room and talent he worked with at LSU, Reid had a number of skeptics who questioned his abilities as a cover safety.
This raised flags, particularly with how the NFL has evolved offensively. Other than that, Reid's football IQ and physical talents were off the charts, which easily gave him the ceiling of a Pro Bowl safety if he responded well to coaching.
A Consistent Tempo-Setter
Since being plugged into the starting lineup, Reid has easily dished out more bone-jarring hits than any individual on the San Francisco roster—maybe even the league.
With 14 tackles in three games, Reid has put together a startling package of highlight-worthy plays (which even dates back to preseason).
Reid has shown an ability to be fundamentally sound and wrap up on tackles, but many times, the rookie has absolutely blown up his target, often leaving guys to feel around in their mouths afterward to see if they still have all of their teeth.
His ability to close appears to be instinctive, making him look like a magnet for contact. As soon as he enters the area of his target, the polarity draws him in like gravity, causing him to go through the ball-carrier like a bowling ball through a set of pins.
This rush of acceleration prior to impact already has given him a laudable identity in a star-studded defense. This is a guy who always lets offensive players know that he is on the field. The presence of a big hitter like Reid can cause apprehension if not fear among receivers and tight ends who go across the middle. This intimidation factor is something the 49ers feared they might lose when they allowed All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson to leave via free agency.
They didn’t lose a thing. In fact, Reid has been delivering clean hits with equal or more force than Goldson.
Over time, and perhaps not much at that, Reid may become known as this team’s hardest hitter.
An Asset, Not a Liability in Coverage
As you read in Rang's scouting report of Reid above—an assessment that seemed to reflect a consensus among NFL scouts—there were valid questions regarding the safety's ability to run with and cover NFL wide receivers. At 6’1” and change, Reid is big, and he came from a bruising college conference that was largely run oriented.
And though he was a top prospect at his position, the 49ers were depending on him to start from day one.
Nevertheless, in three straight weeks versus top-tier quarterbacks, Reid has held up quite well in his first games as a pro, even coming down with interceptions against Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson.
He also recorded three pass breakups.
It appears that Reid has responded well to this 49ers defensive coaching staff, which includes the highly regarded secondary coach, Ed Donatell, whose worked with guys like Ronnie Lott, Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. In terms of talent, Reid has a real shot to add his name to that list and perpetuate Donatell’s legacy as one of the league's best positional coaches.
How has Reid done it so far?
Over training camp and during the exhibition season, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio regularly praised Reid’s development—namely the rookie’s ability to make a mistake, learn from it and not make it again.
Even for a player who, say, isn’t as physically gifted as Reid, that is still an exceptional quality to have. It blows the top off of any perceived ceiling a player might have, simply because that player can continually sharpen his game.
With little else to hang his hat on but a first-round label and a positional need, Reid exercised more than his body to get ahead this offseason.
His IQ and persistence oiled the wheels on the way to a starting gig at free safety. Reid has been using his best weapon, his brain, to play relatively mistake-free football and remain dependable in executing his assignments. So far, he has yet to be caught out of position and has done a very good job keeping plays in front of him.
All in all, you’ve got this rough-and-tumble former two-time Academic All-American with an immense capacity for absorbing information, who rectified his worst fault by learning to play disciplined coverage within the 49ers' defensive scheme.
With his coverage ability complementing his hard-hitting presence, Reid is emerging into a complete package at safety.
The jury is still out on the rookie safety, but so far, Eric Reid has had virtually no hangups in three games played.
He is bright, fearless, loves contact and always wants to be the one to make a play.
For a 49er team that is in transition and having a mild identity crisis, I am surprised that I find Reid the only player above reproach. People are no longer pondering Reid’s ability to adequately fill the shoes left by Dashon Goldson, but instead are curious as to how good he will be over the long term.
Admittedly, he has missed a few tackles here and there, but he perhaps was trying to do too much. If the 49ers get back into a position where they are playing with a lead and regain their swagger on defense, he may really start making some splash plays.
From the looks of it, Eric Reid will be a building block in the 49ers defense, perhaps emerging as a marquee player by year two or three. That could also be the time when you will see some serious personnel turnover in the secondary.