The San Francisco 49ers lost two starting cornerbacks that played key roles over the last three seasons and will turn the reigns over to a pair of young players with far less experience. Vic Fangio’s pass defense was ranked seventh in the league last year and the 49ers are hoping their new-look secondary can play even better as they look to contend for the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Cornerbacks on the 90-man roster
*drafted as a safety likely to play nickel corner in 2014
Cook (free agent. One year, $730,000)
Ward (draft, first round)
Johnson (draft, fourth round)
Reaser (draft, fifth round)
Acker (draft, sixth round)
After Chris Culliver’s season ended early in training camp when he tore an ACL during a punt coverage drill, the 49ers broke camp with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown as their top two corners. Veteran Nnamdi Asomugha earned the No. 3 job to play on the outside in nickel situations. Asomugha struggled early in the season and then suffered a knee injury in Week 3’s loss to the Colts and never saw the field again before getting waived Nov. 4. His injury allowed for then-reserve Tramaine Brock to be elevated on the depth chart leading to breakout season.
Brock finished with a team-leading five interceptions and a shiny new 4-year, $16 million contract securing his future with the team. That deal proved the writing was on the wall for Brown and Rogers, who were both in the market for contract extensions. Brown was in the last year of his deal while the 49ers released Rogers (who had two years remaining) in order to save $6 million in salary cap dollars to help re-sign Anquan Boldin, bring in veteran safety Antoine Bethea and sign Colin Kaepernick to his lucrative contract extension. Both Brown and Rogers wound up staying in the Bay Area by signing one-year deals with the Raiders.
Brock - known for being a calculated gambler in coverage - made more big plays than he gave up. He allowed quarterbacks a 80.8 quarterback rating when targeting his man in coverage. His season was highlighted against the Texans in Week 5, when he returned a Matt Schaub interception 18 yards on the the first defensive series of the game. He added another pick on a pass to Andre Johnson in the second quarter.
In the draft that spring the 49ers used a seventh-round pick on Marcus Cooper, who competed with undrafted player Darryl Morris for a roster spot. Neither ended up making the 53-man roster initially, but Cooper was lost to the Chiefs when the team tried to put him on the practice squad. Cooper wound up playing a prominent role on one of the AFC’s best defenses while the Kansas City re-emerged as one of the conference’s best teams for the majority of the regular season before faltering in the playoffs. Morris made it to the practice and was added to the active roster Sept. 24 in time for Week 4’s Thursday Night tilt against the St. Louis Rams.
Morris - one of the team’s fastest players - showed his value on special teams in kick coverage often trailing the play as a safety valve in case the returner broke through the initial wave of would-be tacklers. But his biggest play of the year came while covering a punt Oct. 20 against the Titans when his hit on returner Darius Reynaud forced a fumble and allowed Kassim Osgood to score a touchdown to give San Francisco a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
Rogers had a solid season until he suffered a hamstring strain late in Week 17’s win in Arizona, costing him the first two games of the playoffs against the Packers and Panthers. He returned for the conference title game in Seattle and wound up allowing the decisive fourth-quarter touchdown to Jermaine Kearse to give the Seahawks a 20-17 lead. Perrish Cox took over for Rogers in Green Bay and Carolina and played well in the slot as the nickel corner. He signed a one-year deal to return to the 49ers in the offseason.
After starting the season on the non-football injury list and missing training camp, Eric Wright played sparingly in a reserve role after joining the team as a free agent in the summer. The 49ers originally tried trading for Wright, but he failed the requisite physical and wound up signing with San Francisco as a free agent once he was cut by Tampa Bay. Wright played just 120 snaps on the year and didn’t see the field on defense in the playoffs after it was believed he would take over for Rogers after he suffered his injury. Wright recently announced his retirement during the team’s offseason program last month.
Story lines to watch
CAN CULLIVER BOUNCE BACK?: The last time Chris Culliver was on the field for a meaningful game he had one of the worst performances of his career at the most inopportune time. He allowed four receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens after making regrettable homophobic comments to a radio show earlier in the week. Culliver has all the physical tools the team covets in their cornerbacks, but he remains somewhat of a question mark after missing all of 2013 with his knee injury. Not to mention his run-in with the law this spring when he was accused of an alleged hit-and-run and brandishing brass knuckles. Legal troubles aside, the 49ers took is slow with Culliver during the offseason program and expect him to be fully recovered from his knee injury after his 18-month absence. It’s also worth noting Culliver is in a contract year and will be looking to get a deal similar to Brock following the season.
WILL WARD WIN THE NICKEL JOB?: For the second-straight year, the 49ers used a first-round pick on a safety. In Jimmie Ward they believe they have a versatile defensive back that can play both deep in a “centerfield” role and in the slot in man coverage. At Northern Illinois, Ward was asked to do it all, leaving the 49ers to believe he has the skill set to excel as a nickel corner right off the bat. But Ward missed the team’s offseason program while recovering from foot surgery that limited his participation in the pre-draft process. Coordinator Vic Fangio said he doesn’t know exactly what to expect from Ward and is unsure if he will win the nickel job out of camp. After all, Rogers was one of the team’s most experienced defensive backs and relied heavily on his mental preparation to play at the position at a high level. It will be a steep learning curve for Ward, but it’s clear the front office feels like he’s up to the challenge.
CAN BROCK BACK UP HIS OUTSTANDING SEASON?: Brock had the best year of any 49ers corner in 2013, but he has never broke camp as a starter during his four-year career. Having gone undrafted out of Bellhaven, the 25-year-old has improved dramatically during his time with San Francisco earning his way to the No. 1 corner job after coming into last season as a reserve. His mandate in 2014 will be to prove last season wasn’t an aberration and he deserves his four-year contract he signed last November.
CAN COOK RESURRECT HIS CAREER?: Chris Cook came into the league with the Vikings after being drafted early in the second round in 2010 with high expectations. But he ran into trouble off the field that hampered his play making him a castoff when the team hired new coach Mike Zimmer this offseason. Cook signed with the 49ers for the veteran’s minimum for one season and will be given every opportunity on both defense and special teams during training camp. At 6’2”, he’s another player with all the physical tools the team looks for in its defensive backs, but he’s prone to give up big plays over the top. Working with talented secondary coach Ed Donatell before and after practices during the offseason program, Cook received first-team snaps during minicamp while Culliver was on the side rehabbing his knee injury. Cook is looking to prove he was worthy of his draft status and hopes his play in 2014 can lead to a big pay day next spring.
LOCKS: Brock, Culliver, Ward, Johnson. Culliver and Brock appear to be the sure-fire starters while Ward is the future replacement to Anotine Bethea, although there’s a strong chance he takes over Rogers’ nickel corner job in the meantime. The 49ers used a fourth-round pick on Dontae Johnson (another 6-foot-2 corner) and believe he has what it takes to become a valuable contributor down the road after struggling some at North Carolina State.
NOTHING’S ASSURED BUT LOOKING GOOD: Cook, Cox, Morris. Cook will still need to prove he’s worth a roster spot after four sub-par seasons in Minnesota, but has already made a solid impression during the offseason program. Cox came in and did everything the 49ers asked in the playoffs in Rogers absence and is one of the most experienced players within the system. Morris proved to be a valuable piece on special teams last season and has shown improvement in his cover skills. He could add to his value by continuing to learn to cover the slot.
ON THE BUBBLE: Reaser, Acker. The 49ers wanted to add depth to the position and did so with their slew of draft picks. Keith Reaser is likely to spend the season on injured reserve after suffering an ACL tear while at Florida Atlantic. Before the injury, Reaser said he ran a 4.32 40-yard dash. Had he not been injured, there’s a good chance he would have been drafted one or two rounds sooner. The 49ers are hoping Acker can develop into a contributor down the road and is likely headed for the practice squad in his first season as a pro.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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