Many things came together for the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. The team made some excellent pickups in free agency - most notably Carlos Rogers at cornerback and Donte Whitner at strong safety. Neither player were "sexy" signings, but both ended up being instrumental to the success the team experiences in the regular season and the playoffs.
It was a murky situation over at free safety though, with Dashon Goldson seemingly close to signing a deal with the New England Patriots and the 49ers apparently ready to make Madieu Williams the starter in his absence. But Goldson's deal with New England fell through and he came back to San Francisco on a one-year deal.
He wasn't perfect by any means, and has drawn the ire of many a fan in San Francisco, but his big plays are something that many teams have and will continue to envy. He just makes things happen one way or another, and at some point, the 49ers made the decision to take the bad with the good.
Sure, he's yet to sign his franchise tender and hasn't joined the rest of the guys in organized team activities, but that's just because he wants some leverage in getting a multi-year down. He'll be with San Francisco in 2012 and he'll likely be just as solid in 2012. If Donte Whitner's change-of-scenery continues to spell good things for him, then the 49ers are set, right?
There's really nobody there behind Whitner and Goldson. Reggie Smith had been that go-between guy who was surprisingly solid when he saw the field and he was the backup, with the aforementioned Williams riding the roster as a veteran backup as well. San Francisco had two other safeties: Colin Jones and C.J. Spillman, but they were of the special teams variety.
Hell, the former only saw one play in 2011 that wasn't on special teams, and that was as a wide receiver on offense. The latter saw defensive snaps in goal line formations (and did very well there, mind you). In short, they weren't legitimate backup options, at least in 2011.
But now Williams has signed with the Washington Redskins and Smith is working with the Carolina Panthers, and the 49ers haven't done much but draft Trenton Robinson all the way back in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. So there's not a whole lot of confidence on that front.
Then we get a piece like this one from the 49ers' official website, in which it talks about Spillman getting a bigger role on defense. It talks about how Spillman was covering Randy Moss in practice, and how he broke on an our route to swat the ball down. That's not something we've really ever seen of Spillman, who was given a vote of confidence on special teams this offseason with a three-year contract.
That's really a rarity for the 49ers - the three-year contract for a special teamer. Sure, the organization values special teams (they had the best special teams units in 2011 ... argue otherwise), but they've let guys like Blake Costanzo walk so as not to award multi-year deals, despite the huge role they may have played.
Which leads this writer to believe that Spillman will get every opportunity to be a backup in 2011. San Francisco doesn't hand out those deals, and it may be bold to say, but they wouldn't have done it if they didn't think he had a future in the lineup on defense at least a few times a game. They just wouldn't have.
Spillman is a heavy hitter, and a great gunner. The man who was once cut from the San Diego Chargers because he couldn't perform on special teams has become one of the best in the league at what he does, and it's that bounce-back that could make him into a surprisingly solid and dependable safety. San Francisco better hope that their investment pays off, because after Spillman, there's not much.