The San Francisco 49ers head into the draft needing to add to their group of cornerbacks. They signed free agent Chris Cook late last week to add depth, but the team is still looking to solidify the position for the long term.
As of now, the team will likely start Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, both 25, after cutting ties with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, the two veterans of the group that started and played well for the majority of the last three seasons. Brock is coming off a career year, earning a four-year, $16 million contract extension for his play after he overtook Nnamdi Asomugha for snaps early in the season. He led the team with five interceptions despite making just seven starts.
San Francisco will also bring back Eric Wright, 29, who will look to return to the player he was when he signed a five-year, $37.5 million deal with Tampa Bay prior in 2012. But a host of off-the-field issues, including a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, led to the end of his short tenure with the Buccaneers giving the 49ers a chance to resurrect his career.
There will be no shortage of competition among the corners this summer. Culliver is coming off an ACL tear suffered early in training camp last year and it remains to be seen if he can return to form that made him a key player during 2012's run to the Super Bowl.
By releasing Rogers, the 49ers will save $6.6 million in salary cap spending while Brown signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Raiders. San Francisco will have Brock, Culliver, Wright, Cook, Darryl Morris and Dax Swanson on the roster leading into the draft.
With the stage set, let's take a look at corners available in the early rounds of May's draft that could be donning red and gold in 2014.
Widely regarded as the best corner in the draft, Gilbert played four years for the Cowboys and set a career mark with seven interceptions (two returned for scores) in his senior season. He earned second-team All-American and first-team all-conference honors in 2013.
His combination of size, speed, quick-twitch athleticism and ball skills make him a rare commodity in the draft, leading many to believe he will be the first corner taken in the first half of the first round. Gilbert one of the few corners available that projected to start from the jump and would have no problem fitting into a defense that specializes in press coverage.
Gilbert cemented his draft status at the combine running a 4.37 40-yard dash and repping 225 pounds 20 times, tied for second among corners. Gilbert will not be around by the time the 49ers pick at 30, so it's likely they would have to move up 15 picks or more. With 11 picks this season and more in 2015 to use as ammunition, nothing is out of the realm of possibility. But with such a deep group of corners coming out this year, it's unlikely GM Trent Baalke would be willing to pay the price to move all the way up given the overall depth of the position.
The Jim Thorpe Award winner and unanimous first-team All-American played a huge role on the Spartan's defense that proved to be one of the country's best. Choosing between Dennard and Gilbert might be a matter of taste, although Dennard's injury history is something teams will be weighing heavily during their evaluations.
Dennard played in all 14 games for the Spartans in 2013 after missing spring practice while recovering from a pair of surgeries to repair a sports hernia. He played with the injury for most of 2012. While Dennard doesn't stand out like Gilbert athletically, his draft status will elevate because of his outstanding game tape. He has all the skills teams look for in a true cover corner, but he wasn't asked to play very much zone coverage in college. According to CBS sports, Dennard allowed just three completions in 31 pass attempts that that went longer than 15 yards in coverage.
He testing numbers didn't necessarily stand out, but running a 4.51 and doing 15 reps on the bench press won't hurt him either. Dennard has the best play strength of any corner coming out and would be a great fit with the 49ers. But like Gilbert, he would require a significant price to move up and get him midway through the first round where a number of teams will be in the market for a corner.
Roby is another corner with the ideal physical traits teams are looking for when taking a corner in the first round of the draft. He could be available when the 49ers pick at the back end of the first round, but he could go sooner if Gilbert and Dennard are off the board early. With the Bengals, Chargers and Saints picking at 24, 25 and 27, there's a good shot he'd be gone before San Francisco's slot.
Roby had an up-and-down season for the Buckeyes, but some might attribute that to the team's defensive struggles as a whole. He was suspended for the first game of the season for getting arrested for a misdemeanor battery charge in Bloomington, Indiana over the summer. The charge was later lowered to disorderly conduct.
Roby tested very well at the combine, running a 4.39 40 with a 38.5-inch vertical jump. Of the three corners projected to go before the 49ers pick, Roby might be the most likely trade-up candidate because the team wouldn't likely have to go more than 10 picks to get him. He has the athleticism and versatility to play both zone and man coverage, which will be intriguing for San Francisco. Even still, there will be plenty of other options available later.
Likely Around at 30
Jason Verrett (5-9, 189), Texas Christian
If not for his height, Verrett might be in the conversation to be the first corner off the board. But given the NFL's reliance on tall, lanky receivers, he will likely be available at 30 and could be a very good option for the 49ers, who will have an open competition for the nickel corner job come August. Verrett is a very good football player with great quickness and speed despite his diminutive frame. He was voted as co-defensive player of the year for the Big 12 along with Jackson Jeffcoat, a defensive end from Texas.
Verrett went to high school at Rodriguez High at nearby Fairfield and will be coming off offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. His recovery will be closely monitored by teams at the back end of the first round or early in the second. He plays bigger than his size, but at just 189 pounds, durability might be a concern at the next level given his willingness to hit and hold the edge in run support.
At the combine, Verrett posted very good numbers running a 4.38 and jumping 39 inches in the vertical. Of all the corners slated to go in the first round, Verrett seems like the most natural fit given San Francisco's needs and their positioning at the end of the round. Like Roby, he can play both zone and man schemes. Look for Verrett to be a popular name associated with the 49ers in mock drafts.
The 49ers' choice of corner could come down to their preferred size at the position, which tips the scales towards Fuller. With his 32 7/8-inch arms, he fits the bill when it comes to Baalke's preferred physical traits. But his tape might not stand out as much as Verrett's. Fuller is believed to be first player in the second tier of corners in this draft.
Fuller is more known for his work in zone coverage than his man-to-man cover skills. But his physical gifts could draw the 49ers to taking him with their first pick. He has good ball skills, is active in run support and would fit in on special teams right away while he develops his cover skills under secondary coach Ed Donatell. Fuller would take some time to develop, but his skill set would make him attractive to the 49ers if they feel that they don't need to plug a rookie into a prominent role right away.
Fuller could compete for the nickel job his first season after playing there early on in his collegiate career. Fuller was a four-year starter with the Hokies.
After playing through groin and shoulder injuries in 2012 without missing a game, Fuller missed out on the senior bowl this winter while dealing with sports hernia surgery.
Joyner is a touch smaller and slower than Verrett, but could contribute in a similar way given their skill sets. Often compared to Tyrann Mathieu - whom the 49ers had interest in before last year's draft - Joyner is a versatile defensive back that could platoon in a nickel role or even move back to safety in certain situations. Joyner is a talented football player whose ability transcends his size, like Verrett.
But Joyner will have to answer the same questions as Verrett at the next level in regards to size. Both were able to overcome their physical limitations in college, but they will have to prove it at the next level. Joyner is a sure tackler, a fiery leader and a good player to have on a football team. But given those physical limitations, the 49ers will have to decide if Joyner is worthy of a first-round selection.
Joyner played all four years with the Seminoles and finished off his career as a unanimous All-American selection. Even as a corner, he led the team in sacks with 5.5 and finished second in tackles with 69. He played safety in 2011 and 2012 before moving to corner in 2013, helping the national champs lead the nation in scoring defense at 12.1 points per game. He will likely be available when the team picks at 30, but could also be an option in the second round if his size causes his stock to drop more drastically.
Second Round and Beyond
There might not be a corner with more upside in the draft than Purifoy. He has very good size, length and athleticism, but productivity and consistency are his biggest question marks. Some believed Purifoy would increase his stock with great numbers at the combine, but he ran just a 4.61 in the 40 and put up six reps in the bench press. He ran an unofficial time of 4.53 at the Gators' pro day on Monday, according to reports.
Purifoy was a special teams demon for the Gators and could contribute as a gunner and on kick coverage right away, which adds to his value while he learns to play corner at the pro level. Whichever team takes him will have to be patient while he develops his consistency and work ethic. If he realizes his potential allowed by his physical gifts, Purifoy could wind up being one of the best values in the draft. The 49ers have a lot of faith in their coaching staff and ability to develop raw talent, but they will have to be sure about Purifoy before investing a second-round pick in the biggest boom-or-bust player at the position. He was viewed as a first-round talent prior to the combine and has seen his stock drop since.
The 49ers don't have to address corner with their first pick. Should they wait and use one of their two second-round picks (No. 56 and 61 overall) on a corner, Breeland might be a player worth considering. He has the size and length to fit the bill, but is considered a raw prospect.
Breeland played three seasons for the Tigers and earned second-team All-ACC honors in his final collegiate season. He didn't test very well at the combine, but plays faster than his 4.62 40 dash would indicate. If he's available late in the second round, he could be a good value for the 49ers at that price.
Big corners have become all the rage in the NFL after watching the Seahawks' physical secondary disrupt offenses over the last two seasons with players like Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Jean-Baptiste is of a similar mold and could be a great value for a team in need of a corner in the second or third round. The former wide receiver (like Sherman) earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in his final collegiate season and impressed at the combine registering a 41.5-inch vertical leap.
His 4.61 time in the 40 isn't ideal, but it's a good number for his size. At 24, he would old for a rookie and he's spent just three years playing corner. Jean-Baptiste is raw, but has the physical traits the 49ers could be looking for in a press corner. If he shows well in the evaluation process this spring, he could elevate himself to a trade-up candidate for San Francisco in the early portion of the second round. Put in the right situation, Jean-Baptiste could become a very good player in the future.
McGill is another tall corner has all the physical tools teams covet. But he is raw and is still getting over some habits developed from his days in junior college. But he tested very well at the combine, especially for his size. McGill ran a 4.51 in the 40 and jumped 39 inches. His 33 1/4-inch arms are some of the longest of any player coming out, which lend directly to Baalke's preference on the surface.
McGill has some experience at safety as well, although many believe he will have to learn to become more physical if he wants to play there in the NFL. As a corner, that physicality in stopping the run doesn't carry the same weight, but it's something teams will consider when looking to take him in the second or third round. Like Jean-Baptiste, McGill could develop into a very good player with the right coaching and could be a very intriguing option for the 49ers with one of their two second-round selections.
Aaron Colvin (5-11, 177), Oklahoma
If not for tearing his ACL in the Senior Bowl, Colvin would be in the second tier of corners considered in the second and third rounds. The two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection is considered a very instinctive player that could cover taller receivers despite possessing average height. He played strong safety in 2011.
Any team taking Colvin would likely have to give him a "red-shirt" season much like San Francisco did with rookies Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine in 2013. But if a team was willing to rehab and develop Colvin for the next year he could be a nice addition to a roster that could compete for a starting job down the road. With a deep roster headed into the draft, San Francisco could afford to take Colvin and allow him to develop in 2014, perhaps as the second corner they take.
Jaylen Watkins (5-11, 194), Florida
Watkins is a durable player that started all 38 games over the last three seasons for the Gators who tested very well at the combine, running a 4.41 and putting up 22 reps on the bench press. He could also play safety and on special teams from the jump.
If his name sounds familiar it's because he's the brother of top receiving project Sammy Watkins. But although Jaylen has very good athleticism, his size and length might leave something to be desired at the next level. But he's thought to be a physical enough player to take on slot receivers and play man coverage close to the line of scrimmage. Watkins could be a good pickup for San Francisco in the third or fourth round to help develop the depth of the position.
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