49ers positional analysis: Cornerback

The 49ers will know a lot more about where they stand at cornerback shortly after a new CBA is reached and the NFL lockout ends. That's when they'll officially begin playing hardball with Nate Clements, their No. 1 CB who will have to take a substantial pay cut to remain with the team. What happens with Clements will chart the course of what the Niners will do in 2011 at this vital position.

Here's the current breakdown of the 49ers at cornerback:

Starters at beginning of 2010 season: LCB Shawntae Spencer, RCB Nate Clements

Starters at finish of 2010 season: LCB Shawntae Spencer, RCB Nate Clements

2010 positional grade: D

Cornerbacks currently on roster: Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer, Tarell Brown, Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver (third-round draft pick), Curtis Holcomb (seventh-round draft pick)

Pending free agents: Will James (unrestricted)

Need to upgrade position before season: Elevated

For a team that had two well-paid, established veterans each start all 16 games last season on the far edges of their defense, the 49ers enter 2011 with some unsettling uncertainty surrounding one of the most important positions in today's pass-happy NFL.

Nate Clements and Shawntae Spencer, while showing signs of quality in spurts, each regressed in 2010 from the season before, and that's not what the 49ers want or need to see from two players in which they have invested so heavily.

Particularly Clements. A posterboy for the insanity that can pervade in NFL free agency, Clements enters the latter stages of his career wearing the blockbuster contract he signed with the 49ers in 2007 around his neck like an albatross. Clements became the highest-paid defender in NFL history the moment he signed that eight-year, $80 million contract, and the bill is coming due on that back-loaded deal this year as it accelerates well beyond Clements' worth to the 49ers.

Clements is due $7.25 million in base salary this year, which the Niners could handle, but easily-reached incentives will more than double the value of that pact, meaning Clements would be a $15 million cornerback this season under the current terms of his contract.

Those terms will certainly be adjusted, and since San Francisco already has paid off most of the guaranteed money in his original deal, the relevant question now seems to surround how low Clements is willing to go to remain a 49er.

All things considered, he is still San Francisco's best cornerback, and the Niners don't want to lose him. But they simply can't keep him at his current price, because that is bad business and the 49ers could use the money they'd save by releasing Clements to buy a younger cornerback who at this stage might even be more effective than Clements.

If Clements remains in San Francisco for his 11th NFL season, the Niners will try to make the best use of his skills in new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's system, which might ultimately be a better fit for Clements if he's used properly. If the money he earns weren't such an issue, Clements would still be considered a starter-level cornerback who can help a team. But he's no longer a Pro Bowl-level corner, and certainly not the lockdown performer at the position the Niners hoped he'd be when they threw all that money at him four years ago.

Clements and Spencer will face competition from players already on the roster as the 49ers attempt to get their best players on the field in their secondary packages. The Niners also figure to be in the market for another veteran cornerback with or without Clements remaining, since veteran Will James added nothing to the team last year and is unlikely to be asked back as an unrestricted free agent.

After a career season in 2009, Spencer slipped back into his previous pattern of having some good days and some not-so-good days last year. He's the team's best cover cornerback, but like those around him in the secondary last season, he surrendered plays to opponents in key situations more times than what was necessary for the 49ers to come out as winners. Spencer is due $3.1 million in base salary this year and can become a free agent after the 2012 season.

The 49ers ranked 24th in the NFL last season in passing defense, their worst showing in 17 defensive categories recorded by the league, and while that stat is always a collaborative effort, San Francisco's cornerbacks clearly shared in the blame.

San Francisco allowed 25 touchdown passes in 2010, and opposing quarterbacks completed 65.1 percent of their throws and finished with a combined season passer rating of 90.0. As the season progressed, it didn't appear that other teams were showing much concern about going right at Clements, Spencer and others on key passing downs.

Tarell Brown has developed into an adequate swing corner, and in his fifth NFL season, he could challenge the incumbent starters for a more extensive role. Brown can make plays – he had a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown against Arizona – and he's probably better in coverage than Clements, so the 49ers will use him accordingly.

The rest of the current roster includes youngsters who are eager to contribute but may not be ready for front-line duty. Phillip Adams, the team's surprising seventh-round draft pick last year, saw increasing action as last season progressed, but he suffered a devastating ankle injury in Week 16 and it remains to be seen how he bounces back from that.

The Niners have high hopes for Chris Culliver, as their third-round investment in April will attest, but since he bounced around between cornerback and safety in college, he'll need time to adjust to the next level. But he's a darkhorse who could surprise this season, and the Niners certainly will give him early opportunities to see if he's ready to contribute sooner rather than later.

Tramaine Brock, who last season became the first undrafted rookie since 2005 to make San Francisco's opening-day roster, also is a youngster with promise. He got an extended look in the season finale blowout of Arizona last year, finishing with three tackles and suggesting that he won't be going away when the pads go on this year.

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