Rumph making the move to safety?

In the new makeover of the 49ers, the team is giving serious consideration to moving cornerback Mike Rumph to free safety, where he could fill a major void and allow the Niners to focus on getting another top corner prospect high in the draft. "But I don't know how that sits with the player," said coach Mike Nolan, who has yet to discuss the switch with the fourth-year veteran. "But it is something that will be discussed." It's also something that could set off a chain reaction in the secondary.

There has been talk about moving Rumph to safety ever since the 49ers drafted the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder with the No. 27 overall pick in the first round of the 2002 draft. Though Rumph stepped in as the nickel cornerback as a rookie, then found a measure of success after moving into the starting lineup at right corner in 2003, many feel he will ultimately land at free safety because of his size and rangy skills.

Now that the 49ers are guided by a head coach who specializes in defense, it would seem the perfect time to make the switch. Rumph is coming off a 2004 season that was washed out by injuries, and the Niners are looking for an upgrade over last year's starting free safety, Ronnie Heard, who is an unrestricted free agent and will only be asked back this year as a reserve – if he is asked back at all.

Now that he and the team's other coaches have studied the team extensively on film, Nolan acknowledges the development Rumph has made at cornerback since his shaky rookie season, but also envisions his potential at safety.

That move – which would allow the Niners some maneuverability with other secondary decisions – may not be far from becoming part of the team's defensive plan.

Then again, Nolan and his staff still are looking at all possibilities, and the trickle-down effect each one would have on the defense in general and the secondary in particular.

"Right now, we're still toying around (with) the different players that are at the position in our secondary," Nolan said earlier this week. "There is always the possibility that Rumph or someone that has been discussed about (could play) in there. I know it has been talked about in the past. But you certainly don't want to shove it down somebody's throat."

However, that might not be the case with Rumph. Though he has been determined to prove himself at cornerback after getting beaten often as a rookie, Rumph has been open in the past regarding the idea of moving to safety, taking the "whatever's best for the team" approach.

This is what might be best for the 49ers.

Rumph now is a veteran of the pro game, and he has natural skills to play safety. If the Niners move him there this spring, he'd have minicamps, training camp and an entire preseason to get comfortable in the position.

The feeling here is that will be more than enough time for Rumph, who is on the verge of becoming an impact player on defense and, frankly, probably is better suited to make that impact as a ball-hawking, big-hitting safety than a tall cornerback who still has some difficulty turning his hips with quick receivers in one-on-one coverage.

But Nolan is cautious. The first-year coach still is playing the devil's advocate with every move the team is contemplating.

"Everybody likes to say, ‘Well, if you can't play corner, you can play safety.' That's really not the truth," Nolan said. "Some guys can make the transition. Some can't. It fits some guys and it doesn't for others. If it's not a natural place for them or it's uneasy, then it's not a good fit. You have to be comfortable out there on the field and if you're not, it's hard to perform.

"But aside from that, we've got some depth in the secondary. It (safety) is also a position we'd like to add someone in free agency. If we can't do it there, the draft, obviously – with 11 picks – we might get some competition for the position. So, right now, with the free agency on our own squad that we can lose, it's a little bit up in the air."

Nolan was referring to Heard, whom the Niners will allow to walk if he gets an offer – any offer – from another team. Heard has had some success with the Niners as a backup safety the past five years, filling in capably as an occasional starter the first four of those seasons. But when handed the full-time role by default last year, his lack of athleticism and instinct for the free safety position was exposed. Heard is better as a strong safety, and he made fewer plays than any 49ers starting free safety in recent memory last year, when he had only one interception and just six passes defensed.

When asked specifically if Heard will be back, Nolan was non-committal.

"He could possibly," Nolan said. "Right now, obviously, he's not on our roster because he's a free agent. So, we have to have plans if he's not back, as well as if he is. But there will be competition no matter whether he is back or not."

During his time as defensive coordinator in Baltimore, Nolan helped turn safety Ed Reed – who was selected three picks ahead of Rumph in the 2002 draft – into the NFL's defensive player of the year last season. There are several high-caliber college prospects out there whom Nolan will consider taking high in the draft – and we're talking here with the 33rd overall pick the Niners own in the second round or the 65th overall pick in the third round – and grooming in the same manner he developed Reed, who was an immediate starter as a rookie and a second-team All-Pro by his second season.

But if Rumph can be the man at free safety – where he'd combine with Tony Parrish for a formidable duo whom can alternate between both safety positions during the course of a game – the team can add another safety much later in the draft. In that scenario, the 49ers wouldn't have to worry about getting a safety in free agency – several of the best free agents already have been taken – concentrating their efforts instead on cornerback, which would be the focus of a high draft pick if Rumph can and does make the move.

In perhaps a telling comment about what's to come, Nolan said, "Our system, both offensively and defensively, will be developed and we will develop the players we have. As we learn more about our secondary and corners in particular, some get to stay at corner. I'll say this: If you have three good corners and one good safety – and they make up your best 11 (defenders) – somebody has to go to safety. That's just the way it is."

And Rumph is just the guy to go there.


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