Reid has played in multiple defensive schemes since joining the league as a 2013 first-round pick, but all of them have featured interchangeable safeties, often leaving Reid to play something more akin to the free safety spot. In other words, Reid usually found himself as the last line of defense, covering the deep middle of the field and hoping that the ball might come his way so he could make a play.
But Reid has never quite believed that such a role was tailored to his particular skillset. That's why the LSU alum couldn't be more excited to become a full-time strong safety in new coordinator Robert Saleh's defense.
"Even dating back to college, this is the first time where it’s a distinct strong and a distinct free [safety]," Reid said. "I’ve been used to the interchangeability type of role, so it is new.
"I feel like I’m just using what God has blessed me with more, which is my size, being in the box, in the run game. In the past, I have just felt like I could do more and being in the post, I can’t use my size as much when it comes to the run game."
Reid is one of a handful of Niners defenders undergoing a change in position and role. In fact, his tag team partner at free safety, Jimmie Ward, is making the conversion from cornerback.
In Saleh's scheme, both safety spots are critically important in making the defense work. The scheme leans heavily on Cover 3 zone coverage, which will regularly isolate Ward as the lone safety on the back end, making him responsible for covering the deep middle of the field. Reid, in contrast, will now spend the vast majority of his time near the line of scrimmage, acting as a sort of de facto additional linebacker.
The goal of the scheme is to slow down opponents' run games. At 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds, Reid struggled in coverage last year but his physical gifts make him a more logical fit at strong safety.
"I feel like I was made for this position with my body type being a bigger safety, so I’m excited about this year," Reid said. "[Hitting is] my favorite part of the game. I used to get mad at myself if I didn’t have at least one big shot, so to have that type of mentality for everybody, I tell the guys all the time I don’t do a lot of talking; I let my pads do the talking. So for somebody else to get a big hit will make me want to get a big hit, will make the next person want to make a play and it’s just infectious. To set that type of culture, I think it’s awesome."
For Reid, turning that excitement into production on the field is of particular importance this season. Reid will play this season on the fifth-year option that the Niners exercised in 2016. That option is available for first-round picks who haven't re-signed, and essentially gives the drafting team an additional opportunity to evaluate the player.
Reid said he has yet to hear from the 49ers about a possible contract extension. Considering Saleh and coach Kyle Shanahan are entering their first seasons with the team, it stands to reason they want to see him perform in their scheme and get to know him before such overtures might be made.
"I look at it from the business standpoint," Reid said. "I majored in business at LSU before I left. They have me under contract. They don’t have any reason to talk to me right now because they still have me. I imagine that if I play well in the first half of the season, they’ll reach out to me. Maybe they’ll reach out to me before training camp; I don’t know. It’s whatever route they decide to take, but look at it as a business; treat it as a business. I have a job to do, so I’m gonna do it."
The Niners wrapped up their offseason program on Thursday, and while they have yet to put pads on and actually tackle, Reid impressed Saleh with his football IQ.
“Eric is unbelievable from a mental standpoint," Saleh said. "He's very smart, able to absorb a lot of information. He's very long, very athletic. He’s strong. He's capable of doing a lot of things down there in the box. I'm excited about Eric and what he's capable of.”
Learning new schemes on both sides of the ball will not yield immediate positive results for the 49ers, but the early returns for Reid have been pretty good. In Wednesday's practice, he made an interception on an intermediate route and returned it for what would have been a touchdown. In San Francisco's defense, which borrows heavily from what Pete Carroll has done in Seattle for years, Reid is playing the role of Kam Chancellor.
For now, Reid's focus is on adapting to his new spot. He hopes a smooth transition will allow the business side of the game to take care of itself.
"I’ve kind of started to figure it out," Reid said. "A little of it was getting used to being in the box and feeling the line and knowing the difference between play-action and the run, getting a feel for the high hats. In the run game, they’re coming off real low and hard so on play-action, if they are sitting back and their hat is high, that can be the one tell. But it happens really fast; you have to see it really quickly and if you don’t see it quick enough, it’s too late. So just getting comfortable with those reads, being in the box. Again, having more of that linebacker type, I’ve had to add a linebacker type of mentality to my game when I’m in the box for run plays."