SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -- It's taken Eric Reid only half his rookie season to become a key component of one of the NFL's best defenses.
Both he and the San Francisco 49ers feel his best is yet to come during the second half.
The team's first-round draft pick has been both effective and productive after stepping up to fill one of the biggest voids in San Francisco's starting lineup. The 49ers haven't much missed free safety Dashon Goldson this season mainly because of the way Reid has performed in his place.
''He's been outstanding,'' 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Friday. ''He's been a continuous effort guy, continues striving to get better. He's better than the player that he was when he first got here, and he's not the player that he's going to be, either.''
The player Reid is now leads the 49ers with three interceptions - just one off the NFL lead - while displaying both maturity and discipline on the back end of the league's sixth-ranked defense. He has been strong both in pass coverage and run support. Reid is second on the team with six pass breakups and sixth with 47 tackles.
But he's still only getting started. Reid expects to get challenged every week by NFL quarterbacks, and this week's test will come from the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton, who like the 49ers enter Sunday's game on a roll.
The 49ers (6-2) have won five consecutive games and Carolina (5-3) comes to Candlestick Park on a four-game winning streak. Carolina leads the NFL with an average margin of victory of 24 points per game and San Francisco ranks second in the league with a winning margin of 19.8 points.
Reid has been a force in San Francisco's resurgence from a 1-2 start and has become more of a playmaker as the weeks have progressed. He's twice hit his career high of nine tackles in the 49ers' past four games and both recovered a fumble and returned an interception 53 yards in a win last month against Arizona.
Even Reid admits he's come a long way since the 49ers traded up to make him the 18th player selected in the 2013 draft.
''I don't feel like a rookie anymore,'' Reid said. ''When I think back about rookie minicamp, to where I am now, it's a huge difference. I definitely wouldn't say it has been easy, but I would say it has been smooth. I can give a lot of credit to a lot of people. Now my focus is just on being a good safety, getting better every day and helping this team win games.''
San Francisco could be getting more help on defense this week with the possible return of outside linebacker Aldon Smith and the possible 49ers debut of cornerback Eric Wright.
Both players recently came off the reserve/non-football injury list and have practiced with the team all week. Smith, a first-team All-Pro last season after setting a franchise record with 19.5 sacks, missed San Francisco's last five games while on leave to attend to personal matters.
Smith still leads the team with 4.5 sacks this season, and both Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have indicated he'll return against the Panthers.
''He looked like he had a very good week, very solid,'' Harbaugh said.
Smith was San Francisco's first-round pick in 2011 and set a franchise rookie record with 14 sacks.
Two years later, the team's top draft pick is having a similar impact. Reid became the first rookie in franchise history to record interceptions in his first two games, and he hasn't looked back since.
''He's still learning, but he plays fast and he's really stepping up to the challenge,'' cornerback Carlos Rogers said. ''He's getting his hands on the ball, he's tackling and he's in position to make plays. Eric is smart and he wants to get better.''
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