SANTA CLARA, Calif. - For the second straight season, the San Francisco 49ers are going to have to remake their group of cornerbacks.
Last year, San Francisco lost in free agency its two most experience corners, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, who both signed modest one-year deals with the Oakland Raiders. This spring, the team has already lost free agent Chris Culliver to Washington, singing a four-year $32 million deal.
Ultimately, losing the experience of Brown and Rogers didn't hurt the 49ers' defense that finished sixth in the NFL against the pass last season. Culliver wound up having a solid season after missing 2013 with a torn ACL, while Cox was a feel-good story stepping in for Tramaine Brock and leading the team with five interceptions.
Overall, San Francisco led the NFL in interceptions and didn't have much drop off on defense despite the high volumes of roster turnover and injuries.
That could be the reason general manager Trent Baalke is content heading into 2015.
"I can see the thought process that you may have," Baalke said. "But internally, (we) feel good about the group and where it can go."
Currently, the group would feature Brock and second-year player Dontae Johnson as starters, with last year's first-round pick Jimmie Ward returning from his second Jones fracture injury in two seasons to play in the slot.
Beyond them, the 49ers don't have any proven options. But they do have bodies. Keith Reaser (torn ACL) and Kenneth Acker (stress fracture) both missed their rookie seasons while recovering from their injuries - which is becoming a regular occurrence for rookies at the team's Santa Clara facility. Reaser didn't play at all in 2014, while Acker had a strong preseason before his foot injury landed him on injured reserve when final cuts were made.
(Side note: OG Brandon Thomas, DL Kaleb Ramsey, FB Trey Millard were the other members of last year's draft class to "red shirt." Trank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore missed their rookie seasons in 2013 doing the same. That's nine drafted rookies in two seasons, for those keeping count.)
"You have those guys in the mix," Baalke said. "We’re working on a couple of other things still. And you got to draft."
It's clear Baalke expected more turnover in 2015 when planning for the draft last spring. He drafted four players at the position. Ward is believed to be a long-term option at safety, but may not switch if he develops at nickel as the team hopes. Baalke believes Johnson, Reaser and Acker can compete for roles this offseason, along with additions in the draft or free agency.
The 49ers are reportedly looking at Chargers free agent Shareece Wright, who was fifth among all corners with 11 penalties in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus. Wright started 29 games over the last two seasons, including the playoffs, and has one career interception. Wright was drafted nine spots behind Culliver in the third round in 2011. He ran a 4.43 at that year's combine.
Last season, quarterbacks completed 41 of 71 passes (57.7 percent) with three touchdowns when targeting Wright. They had a passer rating of 95.5, ranking Wright 41st in the NFL among qualifying corners.
There's been no news about free agent cornerback Chris Cook, who sustained a season-ending hamstring injury midway through last season in his reserve role. If the 49ers don't bring Cook back, Wright would be a reasonable option to provide depth and compete for snaps, both on the outside or in nickel. He's just 5-foot-11, but has long arms, which has always been a trait Baalke covets.
A key to the offseason for San Francisco's secondary will be new position coach Tim Lewis, who has coordinator experience with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2000-2003) and New York Giants (2004-2006). He's replacing Ed Donatell, who left with former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to take the same job with the Chicago Bears.
Both Fangio and Donatell were viewed as instrumental to the development and integration of players into the secondary. No area on the field had more roster turnover over the last two seasons, which made its level of play impressive and reflected well on the coaching staff.
It will be up to Lewis to continue the development of Johnson, who showed promise during his rookie season. In his first 13 games, the rangy corner allowed just a 52 percent completion rate. But when he was forced into the starting lineup late in the season, his production fell. He allowed two TDs in the season finale against the Arizona Cardinals, and 13 catches on 18 targets in his last two games.
Brock had a disappointing year that was derailed by a toe injury suffered in the season opener. Before Brown and Rogers were not brought back, Brock signed four-year extension in 2013 during his breakout season when he led the team with five interceptions. He was plugged into the lineup when Nnamdi Asomugha suffered an early season injury and might not have gotten much playing time had Culliver been healthy.
Brock appeared in just three games last year. There's no telling how his toe will react this season - ask Patrick Willis - after missing so much time.
Whether it's the inexperience of Johnson, or the injury concerns with Brock and Ward, there are plenty of question marks when it comes to the team's cornerback situation, no matter how comfortable Baalke says he is. That's why it's fair to put cornerback high on list of needs entering the coming draft, despite taking four players at the position last year.