Draft outlook: Secondary

The 49ers didn't select a defensive back in the NFL draft last year, but they stockpiled 11 DBs - eight of them cornerbacks, and three of those picked in the first round - in the five drafts before that. Now they're looking to grab another DB high in the college lottery this year to fit into their revised secondary equation, and the latest buzz is it could be with their first-round pick.

Everybody knows the Niners have their sights set on grabbing a premier receiver with the No. 16 pick in the first round, but general manager Terry Donahue said there also could be "three or four" cornerbacks worthy of going that high. If a specific receiver the Niners want to take at No. 16 isn't available, the Niners could be in line to grab Ohio State corner Chris Gamble with that selection.

Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall and South Carolina's Dunta Robinson also are strong candidates to be selected by the Niners, but neither is projected to still be available when the Niners make their first pick. USC's Will Poole, also regarded as a first-round talent, has seen his stock decline recently and won't be considered by the Niners if they still are picking at No. 16.

The Niners are set at cornerback in 2004 with starters Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph - the team's first-round selections in 2000 and 2002, respectively - but they are looking for a third corner who can play regularly after the team lost 2000 second-round pick Jason Webster - a starter since his rookie season - to free agency.

The team has hopes that Jimmy Williams - who didn't play much in the secondary last year after returning from a knee injury - is well enough and talented enough to play his way into the third corner slot. The Niners also have flexibility with promising Dwaine Carpenter, who the team is projecting as a safety for next season but whom also can play cornerback.

That makes the need for a first-round cornerback somewhat less than essential, though the Niners could look instead for a prospect such as Tusculum's Ricardo Colclough, McNeese's State's Keith Smith, Pittsburgh's Shawntae Spencer or Oklahoma's Derrick Strait later during the draft's first day. Spencer visited at the Niners' facility earlier this month.

"That's a situation, right now, that depends on what happens in the draft," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "Jimmy, you can see him now, he's much better than he was. If we were to play tomorrow, Jimmy Williams would be our third corner. The great thing with Dwaine is he does have flexibility. Right now, he's at safety, but he could be our third corner in the nickel. The great thing about him is he can do both."

Donahue said, "If we miss out on a corner, we might have the flexibility then (because of Carpenter) to take a safety instead. Or if we miss on a safety, we may take a corner instead. So it gives us a little flexibility, which Dennis and I have both talked about, and we appreciate the fact that we don't feel, 'God, we have to have a corner or we have to have a safety.' We don't feel like that, because of Carpenter. We think he can play and line up at either position, depending on where the coaches decide ultimately where to put him."

Carpenter is expected to replace Zack Bronson as the starting free safety this year, but the team could go a different direction if a safety prospect is available. If the Niners find a player such as Purdue's Stuart Schweigert or Ohio State's Will Allen still lingering in the third round, it could alter their secondary strategy and their thinking on what to do with the pick.

The Niners also will be open to the idea of picking a college cornerback who can project to safety in the NFL, a route on which Rumph may be headed in the near future.


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