Training camp battleground: Cornerback

This week, SFI takes a look at what should be some of the most competitive and consequential battles for the several jobs that are up for grabs this summer at 49ers training camp. Today: No. 3 cornerback/nickel back

The loss of Jason Webster to free agency and the ascension of Mike Rumph to the starting position at right cornerback leaves the Niners with a formidable void behind their starters at the No. 3 cornerback position, which also will be responsible for nickel back duties.

Last year, that position was filled by Rumph when Webster was healthy and by Rashad Holman (with limited success) when Rumph moved into an injured Webster's starting position for 13 games. In his second year, Rumph developed into a promising cornerback while finishing fifth on the team with 64 tackles and third with three interceptions. He also knocked away eight passes.

After Webster moved on to Atlanta in the offseason for a lucrative contract the Niners never would have considered paying him, San Francisco promoted Rumph to the starting lineup, dumped Holman and drafted University of Pittsburgh product Shawntae Spencer with the 58th overall pick in the second round of the NFL draft.

But that doesn't mean the role as No. 3 cornerback and nickel back will go to Spencer, even though coaches liked what they saw from the rookie this spring.

Fourth-year veteran Jimmy Williams, who had an interception in the season opener last year but seldom saw time at cornerback after that, was impressive during the spring and looked so skilled and experienced in pass coverage that it appeared he would fit in perfectly as the No. 3 man.

What the Niners have to take into consideration, however, is that Williams also is a top candidate to be their punt returner, a role in which he led the NFL in 2002.

When Williams - after returning from a season-ending knee injury - resumed his returning role in the second week last season, the Niners essentially removed him from their defensive plan instead of risking double duty for a player who still wasn't at 100 percent yet.

Williams is 100 percent now, but the Niners face the same dilemma if Williams again becomes their No. 1 returner. Last year, he averaged just 6.9 yards on 35 punt returns while attempting to find his form. He averaged 16.8 yards a return in 2002.

Williams probably could handle both roles, but the Niners would like to see enough development from Spencer that they don't have to make that decision, or at least to allow them to use Williams on a limited basis in coverage.

But this is a key position for a promising defense, so the Niners are likely to go with the player who performs the best this summer.

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