Jaquiski Tartt started eight games as a rookie after 49ers strong safety Antoine Bethea sustained a season-ending torn pectoral.
Bethea, 31, is back at full strength and lining up with the 49ers’ first-team defense, and Tartt is trying to make an impression on the new coaching staff.
“He’s competing to play at safety right now,” 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said of Tartt last week. “It’s one of our deeper positions. So whoever doesn’t win the starting job between that group, we’re going to have to find roles for them to do to get them on the field.”
O’Neil did not waste any time in declaring that Jimmie Ward was one of the 49ers’ 11 best players. He came into the NFL as a backup safety and nickel back. Now, the 49ers believe his best way to get onto the field as an every-down player is at cornerback.
Clearly, Tartt has not made the same impression. A year ago, he showed enough promise to open his rookie season with a role on defense when the 49ers utilized six defensive backs. A similar role to open this season appears realistic, too.
“Right now I’m focused on finding who are the 11,” O’Neil said. “And then if we have 15 or 16 guys, we’re going to find ways to get them on the field. If a guy has earned the right to play for us, we’re going to find roles for him to do it and get him on the field.”
Bethea is healthy and he appears ready to pick up where he left off as a key member of the 49ers' defense.
He was voted as the 49ers’ team MVP in 2014 before his second season with the 49ers was cut short. Early in 2014, microphones famously captured Bethea calling out some of Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive plays before they occurred. That is nothing new to those who play alongside him.
“It’s his experience,” 49ers free safety Eric Reid said of Bethea. “When you play the game for 10-plus years, I don’t know if there’s anything you haven’t seen.
“He sees everything, and he sees it fast. You see a formation, and he’s already calling stuff out. And I’m looking at him, like, ‘All right.’ And then they (the offense) do what he says. He just has that experience.”
That experience has already placed Bethea and Reid ahead of the game in learning O’Neil’s new system.
“Bethea and Eric Reid are very, very smart football players and with this being the fourth time I’ve been a 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,” O’Neil said.
Bethea is an obvious leader on the defense, but knowledge is not his only asset. He still has enthusiasm for the game and appears to be on solid footing to hold off any challenger to his starting job.
“You can’t be a teacher and a mentor at all times,” he said. “I’m still a kid, too. I love to go out there and play. But when it’s time for those guys to come to me and ask questions or if I see somebody doing something that I can give them a pointer or two, that’s when I do that.”