Secondary issues

The way Ron Lynn sees it, the 49ers' secondary will have a little bit of everything in 2004. "There are guys that have experience, there are guys with medium-range experience, there's some young guys who are getting better, and there's some young guys who really want to get better," said Lynn, who took over as San Francisco's secondary coach in February, and now will be attempting to take that developing unit to the next level when training camp begins two weeks from today.

With 38 years of coaching experience, including 11 as an NFL defensive coordinator with San Diego, Cincinnati and Washington and the past seven as a secondary coach with New England and Oakland, Lynn knows a thing or two about building a quality defensive backfield.

Lynn got a good look during the spring at the talent he'll be working with this season, but it won't be until the pads go on at the end of this month that he'll be able to seriously evaluate the secondary as a whole and in what direction he wants to take it this season.

"The biggest thing from a coaching standpoint is for all of us to try to determine what it is that we do best," Lynn said. "And when I say we, I mean the players, and the coaches and the system that's being put in place – what things do we do best and who does what best – so we can find a place for each guy to be successful. Everybody's got different skills, so we have to make an adaptation somewhere along the line in the system and in the scheme as well as the technique."

Lynn is counting on that philosophy to continue the gradual improvement the Niners displayed in their pass defense in recent seasons under previous defensive coordinator Jim Mora and secondary coach Brett Maxie, both of whom now are coaching with the Atlanta Falcons.

The 49ers ranked 17th in the NFL last year in pass defense, but they will be replacing two secondary starters from 2003. It's debatable, however, whether that is actually a bad thing or a good thing. Cornerback Jason Webster, now with Atlanta, was injured most of last season – he played in only five games and started just two – and safety Zack Bronson's performance fell off dramatically as the season progressed. Bronson missed four games to injury.

With Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph set as the starting cornerbacks and stalwart Tony Parrish returning at one safety position, Lynn is eager to reload at the other secondary slots – including the extra backs that will play in certain coverage packages – with the cast of young returning veterans and the influx of young talent that joined the team this spring.

"You don't have time in this league to rebuild," Lynn said. "That's the nature of the game. But I think this is a good group. There's not a lot of age, but there's enough age to have some experience, and those guys have some leadership qualities."

The keys to summer progress, Lynn said, is to accelerate the learning curve for young players such as Shawntae Spencer – the team's second-round draft pick who's expected to be a significant contributor this season – and identify depth behind the starting unit.

"When you go into the season, you have four guys that get introduced, but you end up with seven or eight starters because of nickel and dime and all that other stuff," Lynn said. "And that's not even mentioning injuries."

Lynn said he'll probably learn more about his secondary during the month of August than he was able to determine during the spring. And he's anxious to find out, because San Francisco's promising defense is on the rise and virtually set at each position in front of the secondary. Lynn knows his unit will be tested often and will play a prominent role in the rise – or fall – of San Francisco's 2004 defense.

"When you get the pads on, a little more of the football player comes out," Lynn said. "We've got a lot of work to get done and a lot of training camp to go through and a lot of preseason games to go through. But the four guys that end up being out there will be really good players."

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