The 49ers can be expected to use one of their top draft picks on a safety to replace All-Pro Dashon Goldson, who signed a lucrative free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Former NFL safety Matt Bowen, a CSN Chicago contributor, said the 49ers' best plan of attack is to add one of three players he believes can step into the starting lineup immediately.
"Probably in that 25-to-32 range, you'll see safeties start coming off the board," Bowen said. "That fits the 49ers perfectly. Are they going to get a player who's just as good as Goldson? Probably not as a rookie. But coach (Jim) Harbaugh is building a program. If you can get a good young safety for basically an eighth of the price, that's a smart business model."
The 49ers declined to tag Goldson as their franchise player at $7.45 million this season. The club is believed to have offered Goldson a multiyear deal that averaged $7 million annually. Instead, Goldson signed a five-year, $41.25 million contract with the Buccaneers that included $17.5 million guaranteed.
"That's a ton of money to pay a safety," Bowen said. "I like him. He's physical, he plays fast and he's violent. He does take risks. But you're not going to find a perfect safety in the NFL. The 49ers made the right decision. They had to let some talent walk."
The 49ers countered the loss of Goldson with the addition of veteran free agent Craig Dahl, who started 16 games for the St. Louis Rams last season. Dahl is expected to be a special-teams player and compete for playing time after signing a three-year, $5.25 million contract.
"He can play if they need him to, but they can do better," Bowen said of Dahl. "He's a type of guy who can play both spots. The third guy has to be on all the core special teams. You have to have that guy on your team -- a swing safety who can start if they need him to."
The most likely options for the 49ers, if they do not move from their scheduled picks at Nos. 31 and 34 overall, are Jonathan Cyprien (Florida International) or Eric Reid (LSU), Bowen said. Kenny Vaccaro (Texas) is expected to be the first safety selected in the draft.
"I don't think he's going to be there," Bowen said of Vaccaro. "He has too much talent. He can play in the box, in the middle of field and play the slot."
Matt Elam (Florida) is also projected to be one of the top safeties selected. However, Bowen believes Elam is too similar to 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner, with whom Bowen played in 2006 with the Buffalo Bills.
"Matt Elam is a younger version of Donte," Bowen said. "He (Whitner) is a great pro. I love how he plays the game, how physical he is and his ability to play cover 2, blitz and put his hat on people. Matt Elam is not near that stage of production. His best asset is when he's closer to the line of scrimmage."
Reid (6 feet 1, 213 pounds) has a lot of range, Bowen said. He has the ability to play vertical routes. Cyprien (6 feet, 217 pounds) has been rising up draft boards after a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, Bowen said. Cyprien is scheduled to make a pre-draft visit to meet with the 49ers.
"He's physical, and he has an NFL body already," Bowen said. "If the 49ers are on the clock and either of those two safeties are available, that would be their best bet."
D.J. Swearinger (South Carolina), Shaun Williams (Georgia) and Shamarko Thomas (Syracuse) are other safeties that Bowen rates highly.
"Even though it's a very deep safety class, you're asking a guy to come in and play for a championship contender," Bowen said. "There are some other very good players, but if you're talking about getting a guy to replace Dashon right now, Vaccaro, Cyprien and Reid are the top three guys."