Training camp battleground: Right cornerback

The 49ers took a substantial leap in quality and experience at cornerback when they signed Carlos Rogers to a one-year deal earlier this week, but nobody's handing the veteran newcomer the starting job opposite Shawntae Spencer just yet. Scrappy veteran Tarell Brown has something to say before that happens, and the team also is taking a look to see what some youngsters can do on the right side.

This is how the training camp competition breaks down at right cornerback:

2010 starter: Nate Clements (all 16 games)
The veteran: Tarell Brown
The newcomer: Carlos Rogers
The upstart: Chris Culliver
The departed: Clements

The 49ers knew they were creating a hole in their secondary when they released Clements last week after four seasons with the team. But they did it anyway because of his exorbitant salary, figuring they could find better or comparable quality at a much more reasonable price after Clements was gone.

Enter Rogers, the ninth player selected overall in the 2005 NFL draft and a guy known for his coverage skills during his six seasons with the Washington Redskins, the team that drafted him but did little to keep him from leaving this year in free agency.

Considered one of the top five cornerbacks available on the open market this year, Rogers opted for a one-year deal with the Niners because of "the hunger of the team and the attitude of the coach," he said.

Rogers started 63 of the 66 games he played for Washington the past five seasons, recording 299 tackles and 73 passes defensed as a Redskin while gaining experience in several different defensive schemes that had him playing several different coverage techniques.

"I played everything," Rogers said. "I had three different coordinators. It's the same coverage they're playing here, last year with coach (Jim) Haslett, playing the nickel and outside. I played two years mostly man. I had Gregg Williams my first three years and we played some of everything."

Brown has played only in Greg Manusky's 3-4 scheme since being drafted in the fifth round by the 49ers in 2007, but now he's learning anew in coordinator Vic Fangio's version of the 3-4 that can come with different coverage responsibilities.

Culliver, San Francisco's third-round draft pick this year, is transitioning back to cornerback after playing safety most of his senior season at the University of South Carolina, where he started at cornerback earlier in his career.

Brown has carved his niche with the 49ers by being quick and capable in coverage, starting four games in 2009 and getting regular action in secondary coverage packages each of the past two years. He held down the role of San Francisco's No. 3 cornerback most of those two seasons.

Brown does not possess the size of Rogers or Culliver, but he has displayed potential as a playmaker, recording two interceptions in 2008 and 2009 and taking a pick back 62 yards for a touchdown to punctuate a season-ending route of Arizona in January.

Brown also brings the kind of assertive attitude that brought Rogers to San Francisco. Brown has had the early lead for the starting role since training camp began, but he doesn't see his opportunity to hold that job diminished because of Rogers' arrival.

"They definitely have to bring in guys to push all of us," Brown said. "Carlos is a good player, but I feel I'm a good player as well. This is a fresh start for everybody. Everybody's trying to prove themselves and make a mark, trying to make a name for themselves. And that's what I'm trying to do as well."

Brown has had a solid camp so far, but now the competition at corner will heat up with Rogers, who practiced with the team for the first time Thursday. Both players got a lot of work Friday with coaches keeping Spencer on the sidelines, with Culliver also getting notable work as those three players rotated at both corner positions.

Culliver has good size and athleticism and has used both to his advantage so far in camp, but he is facing the learning curve that challenges all rookies at this stage of their development.

That likely leaves Rogers and Brown battling for the starting role the rest of this month in what figures to be one of the team's closest competitions for a starting job this summer.

Rogers, 30, has the advantage of proven performance on his side. But while the 26-year-old Brown has shown a nose for the ball in his four seasons, the knock on Rogers is his tendency to miss out on interception opportunities. Despite 68 career starts in six seasons, Rogers has taken heat for collecting only eight interceptions during that span. The 49ers would like to see more picks from this position, where Clements totaled only six interceptions the past three seasons.

"I don't think (the criticism) is fair," Rogers said. "I have dropped some balls and I'm hard on myself about that. You know, Gregg Williams always told me, if you don't catch it, you make sure that receiver doesn't catch it. And I think I did a good job my whole career, if I didn't catch the ball, my receiver wasn't making plays, wasn't scoring touchdowns. That's my whole thing: Make sure I'm tackling, make sure my man doesn't catch that ball."

And those are things that make Brown's lead on the depth chart tenuous at best as the 49ers enter the heart of training camp with their preseason opener coming up quickly next Friday in New Orleans.

But Brown won't be going away any time soon.

"Carlos and I, we're definitely battling," Brown said. "I think it's a good thing, having a veteran guy like that, that's been around the game, that's played a lot of football. But I'm a competitor as well, so I'm definitely not going to give it up easy."

The edge: Rogers. Expect the 49ers to work the veteran more and more with the first unit as camp progresses until the job becomes his to lose. That likely will create another competitive battle at cornerback, with Brown and the promising Culliver squaring off for the No. 3 role at the position.

Niners Digest Top Stories