The San Francisco 49ers' roster is cut and dry at a number of positions, but cornerback is excluded from that list.
Corner is likely the position that will have the most turnover in 2014 after finishing the year with the league's No. 7 pass defense. Reserves Eric Wright and Perrish Cox join starter Tarell Brown as free agents this spring. Carlos Rogers, Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and undrafted rookie Darryl Morris are signed for next season.
Rogers is slated to count for a team-high $8 million against the salary cap, making it a virtual certainty he will have to take a drastic pay cut to remain with the team. Rogers suffered a hamstring injury in the final regular season game in Arizona and was replaced by Cox, who played well in the team's two playoff wins over the Packers and Panthers.
Rogers started all 48 regular season games for San Francisco since coming over from Washington in 2011. He will be 33 in July and the 49ers will likely want to get younger and cheaper at the position. But there is the possibility of bringing Rogers back on a far cheaper, more cap-friendly deal, especially if the team is hoping to bring back Anquan Boldin at a similar figure. The 49ers are hoping to save as much cap space as possible with Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati due for free agency following next season.
Brock, 25, was sprung into action Week 3 against the Colts when then-nickel back Nnamdi Asomugha was sidelined with a knee injury. Brock went on to lead the team with five interceptions and earned a four-year, $16 million contract extension in November, making him the lone certainty at the position for next season. Asomugha was released in November after being unable to retain his job from Brock and retired following the season.
Culliver suffered an ACL tear early in training camp and missed the entire season after playing well in 2012, his second year in the league. But he went on to struggle in the Super Bowl after making regrettable comments to a shock-jock radio station during media day.
Culliver is slated to be fully rehabbed in time for training camp and will be competing for a starting job opposite Brock.
The 49ers brought in Wright on a low-risk one-year deal hoping they could maximize the productivity of the Bay Area native and former 2nd-round pick in 2007. Wright missed training camp due to injury and didn't join the active roster until Nov. 11. He went on to play after Brown suffered a chest injury Week 11 against the Saints. It was assumed Wright would take over at nickel corner for Rogers in the playoffs after his injury, but Wright was passed over for Cox, who was signed the week before after being released by Seattle.
Wright showed up on the injury report the week of the Wild Card round against the Packers with a hamstring injury, but wound up playing special teams in Green Bay anyway. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said afterwards that Cox had a better week of practice, which doesn't bode well for Wright's chances at returning next season. Both are free agents.
Brown's status could go either way. His stock was far higher at this point 12 months ago than now with his pending free agency. Quarterbacks completed 61.4 percent of their passes when targeting Brown for a 100.7 rating in 2013. The year before, opposing quarterbacks had a 77.7 rating.
Brown turned 29 Jan. 6 and still has the physical tools to be a solid starter in the league. And given his decrease in production during his contract season, he might not be out of the 49ers' price range.
Last spring, Brown missed out on a $2 million workout bonus when he stayed in Texas instead of coming to the team's facility to participate in a portion of the offseason. According to reports, San Francisco's brass recently gave Brown $300,000 to make up for the mistake that Brown tabbed as a miscommunication between him and his agent.
Cox could also return within the 49ers' price range. They liked the way he played in the postseason and could see an expanded role should he return. Cox was one of the team's most physical corners in terms of stopping the run, which came to light in the win against Green Bay. But the price could rise for the 27-year-old on the open market.
Morris, the undrafted rookie who joined the team last spring was a pleasant surprise. Perhaps the fastest player on the roster, the Texas State alum stood out on special teams, often trailing kick coverages to prevent opponents from breaking big kickoff returns. As a gunner on the punt team, Morris forced a fumble from Titans' returner Darius Reynaud that ended up being a touchdown for Kassim Osgood Week 7.
Morris spent training camp competing with fellow rookie Marcus Cooper, who was plucked by Kansas City when the 49ers tried to land him on the practice squad prior to the start of the regular season. Cooper ended up making a number of big plays for the Chiefs as their third corner. He was drafted in the seventh round after struggling to get in the starting lineup at Rutgers.
The team could also look toward a decent crop of free agents to bring in to upgrade the secondary. The bigger names on the list include the Bears' Charles Tillman, Dolphins' Brent Grimes, Broncos' Dominique Rogers-Cromartie and the Colts' Vontae Davis, brother of Vernon Davis. More affordable options could be Antoine Cason of the Cardinals, Captain Munnerlyn of Carolina, Brandon Browner or Walter Thurmond, both from Seattle.
Thanks to position coach Ed Donatell, the 49ers have shown an ability to find and develop good corners, which bodes well for them in this year's draft. Brown, a three-year starter, was taken in the fifth round in 2007. Brock went undrafted out of Bellhaven. Culliver was the highest drafted of the three, taken in the third round after converting from safety in college at South Carolina.
Corner figures to be one of the deeper positions this May giving Trent Baalke options aplenty at No. 30 overall in the draft. Or he could move up and select the corner of their liking, much like they did with Eric Reid last year, when they traded their first rounder and a third round pick with the Cowboys to move up to No. 18. San Francisco will likely be in the market for another safety in the early rounds this year with Donte Whitner likely to test the free agent market commanding more than the team is willing to spend.
The NFL combine begins Wednesday and free agents are allowed to being negotiating with new teams March 8.
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