SANTA CLARA, Calif. - After losing two starting cornerbacks for the second straight offseason, the San Francisco 49ers could be primed to the address the position early in Thursday’s draft.
And if general manager Trent Baalke takes a cornerback with the team’s 15th-overall pick in the first round, it would be the third draft in a row he addressed the secondary with his first pick, following safety Eric Reid and nickel corner Jimmie Ward.
A player that would make a lot of sense, in terms of fit and value midway through the first round, is Washington’s standout corner Marcus Peters. But where things get tricky - perhaps more tricky for the 49ers than other teams - is Peters’ checkered history off the field.
Viewed by some as the most talented corner in this year’s class, Peters was dismissed from Washington’s program after clashing with coaches both during practice and in games. He had to deny that he choked a coach during practice leading to his dismissal, and declined to offer details when pressed about the situation at February’s scouting combine.
“I learned from my mistakes,” Peters told the media at the combine. “I made some immature decisions at the University of Washington. It hurt me, truly. I got into interviews and accept full responsibility for what happened. I take full ownership of it.”
Peters’ rap sheet also includes a failed drug test for marijuana as a freshman in 2011 and a suspension for academic reasons the following year. Things came to a head when Washington lost head coach Steve Sarkisian to USC after the 2013 season, who recruited Peters. The conflict with new coach Chris Petersen and his staff ultimately led to Peters being kicked out of the program last fall.
“Peters is as good a pure press corner as there is in the class, kind of like Trae Waynes,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said in a conference call recently. “He's quick, plays with an edge. He tackles. He's a freaky good looking corner that if he was clean off the field would be probably a top 15, 18 pick in any class.
“Now, you add in the question of whether or not there are character concerns, whether he can take authority, his relationship with his coaches, I think what that does is just throws a cloud over it a little bit and pushes him towards the bottom of the first round. I think he's going to go between 20 and 32. And I'd be really surprised if he slid out of (round) 1.”
The 49ers have been plagued with off-the-field issues in the past, and were tops in the league in arrests over former head coach Jim Harbaugh’s four-year tenure. But that fact didn’t prevent Baalke from bringing in troubled free-agent receiver Jerome Simpson this offseason, who was released by the Minnesota Vikings following multiple arrests involving marijuana leading to a league-imposed three-game suspension last year.
49ers CEO Jed York indicated he wasn’t in the loop when it came to Simpson’s signing, telling the San Francisco Chronicle last month, “You have to ask Trent. I don’t know what the thinking was.” Of course, the signing came amid constant “win with class” proclamations by York this offseason since parting with Harbaugh in December.
Does Simpson’s signing indicate Baalke will continue to have autonomy when it comes to adding players with off-the-field concerns? That’s a key question when it comes to the 49ers’ evaluation of Peters - and troubled wideout Dorial Green-Beckham, who enters the draft in a similar situation.
Peters potentially coming home is another factor the 49ers will have to consider. He grew up in Oakland and starred at McClymonds High. Playing close to home, where family and friends are, can bring an inherent set of distractions that some teams try to avoid.
Peters also considers Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, also an Oakland native, one of his most influential mentors.
"That is somebody that has mentored me my whole life,” Peters said. “I look up to him a lot. He’s a great Oakland citizen … I watched him playing Pop Warner football, I watched him in high school, and I watched him in college.”
[Related: In-depth scouting report of Marcus Peters]
The 49ers lost starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox in free agency, to Washington and the Titans, respectively. That duo made 28 starts on San Francisco’s fifth-ranked defense last year. Tramaine Brock will be back after injuries kept him out 13 games in 2013, along with free-agent acquisition Shareece Wright, who started the last two seasons for the San Diego Chargers. Second-year player Dontae Johnson will also be a candidate to start after making three starts in during his promising rookie season. Chris Cook will be back after a torn hamstring cost him most of last year.
Rookies Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser will compete for playing time after missing 2014 with injuries. Acker came on strong at the end of the preseason but was put on injured reserve when final cuts were made with a stress fracture. Reaser took the year to rehab a torn ACL he sustained at Florida Atlantic.
"We feel good about the depth and we’ll see how this draft plays out,” Baalke said, “whether we have the ability to pick a player, or more, at that position or not.”
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