SANTA CLARA, Calif. - For the second straight season, the San Francisco 49ers have to replace their two starting cornerbacks from a top-10 pass defense.
But, unlike last season, the situation is far more foggy heading into training camp.
This time last year, it was assumed Chris Culliver, returning from an ACL tear, and 2013 breakout player Tramaine Brock would be the starters in the opener against the Cowboys, a year after the team lost Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown to the Oakland Raiders in free agency.
This summer, Brock is coming off a season in which he played just three games because of a toe injury. Meanwhile, Culliver signed a four-year, $32 million deal to play in Washington as a free agent this spring after starting 14 games.
And Perrish Cox, who received the most playing time in lieu of Brock’s injury with 14 starts, went to the Tennessee Titans as a free agent, signing for $15 million over three years after leading the 49ers with five interceptions.
So where does that leave San Francisco? With plenty of question marks - and a number of options at the same time.
The 49ers currently have 10 corners on their roster, including nickel corner Jimmie Ward, who is listed as a defensive back. They had five corners, not including Ward, on the 53-man roster at the start of last season.
49ers Corners on 90-man roster:
Kenneth Acker (6-0, 195)
Tramaine Brock (5-10, 197)
Chris Cook (6-2, 212)
Marcus Cromartie (6-0, 195)
Mylan Hicks (5-11, 197)
Dontae Johnson (6-2, 200)
Leon McFadden (5-10, 190)
Keith Reaser (6-0, 190)
Shareece Wright (5-11, 182)
Jimmie Ward (5-11, 193)
The numbers at the position remain robust, despite not addressing the position with any of their 10 picks in the recent draft.
”We tried to address it at multiple times during this draft, but the board just didn’t fall that way,” general manager Trent Baalke said earlier in the spring, noting, “We’re high on the three guys we took in last year’s draft.”
In 2014, Baalke drafted three corners, and Ward, who was taken with the team’s first-round pick. Now, after losing his top two players at the position this spring, 2015 becomes the time to see if those selections will bear fruit.
Of those four players taken, Dontae Johnson (fourth round) and Ward were the only players to play last season. Keith Reaser (fifth round) and Kenneth Acker (sixth round) missed the entire year with injuries. Reaser joined the growing list of players Baalke drafted that sustained ACL tears in college, while Acker was shut down after it was discovered he played the preseason with a stress fracture in his left foot.
When it comes to handicapping the depth chart, the offseason program didn’t offer much. Many of the healthy players rotated in and out of team drills. The difference in snaps between players was minimal, leaving little indication of how the depth chart will shake out. Things will start to take shape once training camp starts Aug. 1, and the competition to start will become a little more clear.
Heading into training camp, here’s what we know about the 49ers cornerbacks:
—Johnson had a promising rookie season, starting when he was forced into action Week 1 after both Cox and Brock left with injuries. But his play tailed off toward the end of the year. Given his youth and physical gifts, he might have the most upside of any corner on the roster.
—Acker and Reaser are both fully healthy and were active participants in the team’s offseason program. They are right in the mix in the competition for playing time. Acker’s strong preseason last August has kept his stock relatively high while Reaser might be the fastest player at the position. Both players would have to accelerate their development quickly if they want a chance to crack the starting 11.
—The 49ers like Chris Cook, who is returning after suffering a season-ending hamstring injury midway through 2014, and free-agent acquisition Shareece Wright, who started 27 games in the last two seasons for the Chargers. Baalke said he believes Wright is in a similar position as Rogers when he joined San Francisco in 2011 - an underachiever on his first NFL team poised to improve in his second stop. Rogers turned into a Pro Bowler after joining the 49ers despite struggling with Washington beforehand. The tea leaves indicate Wright, a former third-round pick, might be a favorite to land a starting role given his experience with San Diego. But the Chargers didn't do much to retain Wright, who was Pro Football Focus' 105th-ranked cornerback (of 108 qualifiers) last season.
—San Francisco believes Brock can be a high-level corner if healthy, as he was two seasons ago when he signed a four-year, $16 million extension. But, as we saw with Patrick Willis, toe injuries should never be taken lightly. And Brock received very few reps this offseason as a result. Still, he remains a favorite to reclaim a starting job, should his health allow it.
—Ward’s season-ending Jones fracture in his foot last November, his second in two years, prevented him from participating on the field this spring. That means the 49ers will be offering plenty of training camp reps to potential replacements, including Johnson, Reaser, Wright, Acker and even Brock. Ward has said he plans on participating in training camp. His progress will be an important development to monitor as camp goes on. When it wasn’t Cox, Johnson saw the most time replacing Ward at nickel following his injury last season.
—Schematically, the 49ers are likely to employ a significantly different defense under new coordinator Eric Mangini, who plans on using more exotic looks than the relatively vanilla former coordinator Vic Fangio. That means cornerbacks will be left on an island far more often while safeties and/or linebackers blitz at a higher rate, forcing corners to play conservatively. With that in mind, it makes sense why the team wasn’t eager to bring back Culliver and Cox, who were known for consistently gambling for interceptions. Under Fangio, those players usually had help over the top and on the outside. That might change in 2015.
—Cromartie and McFadden played sparingly after being acquired midway through last season. McFadden was a former third-round pick (68th overall, sixth in the round) of the Cleveland Browns in in 2013 out of San Diego State. He ran a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash and impressed scouts in the three cone drill. In 85 snaps spread over the final six games, he allowed four catches in six targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Cromartie was added to the practice squad last November, and was elevated to the 53-man roster in December to appear in the final three games. Cromartie was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and made stops in San Diego and Cleveland before landing on the 49ers practice squad last fall.