SANTA CLARA -- Ronnie Lott, who knows something about making an impact as a rookie, likes what he sees from 49ers free safety Eric Reid.
"I haven't seen him trying to play like a rookie. He's trying to play like he belongs," Lott said in a phone interview Friday. "And he not only plays like he belongs, but he's had a fabulous rookie year."
When the 49ers lost two-time Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson to free agency during the offseason, they had big shoes to fill -- and lots of space to cover in the secondary.
As it turns out, they may have wound up with an upgrade at a fraction of the price. Pro Football Focus, which uses game film to grade every player on every play, ranks Reid as the No. 23 safety in the NFL, with Goldson at No. 82 out of 86 players ranked at the position.
PFF calculates that quarterbacks have a 64.5 passer rating when throwing into Reid's coverage area, while QBs targeting Goldson's area have a 120.7 passer rating.
Lott, the Hall of Famer, doesn't need the stats to be impressed by the 49ers' first-round pick out of LSU. As Reid and Goldson prepare to share the stage when the 49ers play on the road Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 10-time Pro Bowl selection praised Reid for his physical style and fearless approach.
"The first thing that you think about as a rookie is that you've got to measure yourself: You've never played with men. You've played with boys," said Lott. "The great thing to me is that Reid is never afraid to stick his head in. ... It doesn't matter how big or how fast the other guy is. He's very comfortable."
Lott was selected to the All-Pro team and helped the 49ers win the Super Bowl in his rookie season of 1981. He ventured that Reid's smooth transition to the NFL was paved by all those pressure-packed college games he played at powerhouse LSU, playing before crowds topping 90,000.
"The part that you can't teach is being in big games," said Lott, whose USC teams shared a national title in 1978 and played in the Rose Bowl in '79 and '80. "But when (Reid) goes out and plays in Seattle, he already knows what it takes to focus and do his job. It's been great to see him do that."
Reid, who turned 22 on Tuesday, credits veteran strong safety Donte Whitner for helping him grow up fast. Whitner, in his eighth NFL season, took the kid under his wing late in training camp when Reid was making a strong push for the starting job.
"He's taught me how to be a professional athlete," Reid said.
The rookie said Whitner is especially helpful on the practice field, where he translates chalkboard schemes into real-life visuals.
"Even the coaches are looking at him to make sure everything is right," Reid said.
Whitner is happy to tutor Reid because he said the No. 18 overall pick quickly demonstrated the traits it takes to last in the NFL: The rookie never makes the same mistake twice and reacts to adversity with resolve.
"A guy who won't go into his shell and will continue to fight is really going to be great," Whitner said. "And he's shown that from Day 1."
Reid ranks fourth on the 49ers with 61 tackles. He is the only NFC player with three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. The most impressive number, though, might be zero. That's the number of penalties Reid has committed this season, while making a base salary of $405,000.
Meanwhile, his predecessor, Goldson, who signed a five-year, $41.5 million deal in Tampa, continues to play on the edge. The free safety has been fined $130,000 this season for helmet-to-helmet hits and also suspended one game for an illegal hit.
On a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week, Goldson questioned the league's direction when it comes to penalizing physical play.
"I remember being on the good side of it, hearing commentators, analysts talking about how perfect, how good, how I (tackle) the right way," Goldson said. "And all of a sudden with the new rule, I'm a dirty player, a nasty player, targeted and I'm not playing the game how it's supposed to be played."
Goldson, who played for the 49ers from 2007-12, remains a popular and respected player in the locker room, and Whitner echoed his ex-teammate's sentiment.
Whitner said that if players were given a choice between a high hit that comes with the threat of a concussion or a low-hit that risks a career-threatening knee injury, "99.9 percent would take the concussion."
Reid, who has taken two concussion during his rookie season, steered clear of the controversy, calling the rules interpretations "one of those things that we have to adapt to."
The rookie already has missed two games because of those concussions, and Goldson, on his conference call, said Reid would "have to learn how to keep his head out of it" during the tackling process.
Whatever the issue, indications are that Reid will figure it out quickly -- just as he has with the rest of his game.
"He handles everything the way a veteran would," 49ers cornerback Eric Wright said. "And it shows in the way he's playing. ... I can't applaud him enough. That's the expectation level he set for himself, so we're going to expect that out of him for as long as he's here."
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.
49ers (9-4) at Tampa Bay (4-9), 10 a.m. FOX
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