Niners won't wait long on corner

How badly do the 49ers need a cornerback in the draft? When you listen to Ahmed Plummer speak in hushed tones about his neck problem, and see Mike Rumph holding his right arm gingerly while watching from the sidelines at a recent team minicamp, it sure does make you wonder.

Plummer and Rumph, as most 49ers followers know, currently are the starting cornerbacks on the team's depth chart. They combined to play in just eight games in 2004. Both ended the season on injured reserve.

First-round draft picks two years apart, it still can be said that Plummer and Rumph have the potential to be legitimate starting cornerbacks in the NFL. At the high end of that potential, Plummer and Rumph would form a quality cornerback duo in new coach Mike Nolan's revamped defense.

But the Niners seriously must wonder these days if they can rely on either of them.

Plummer missed the final 10 games last year with a bulging disk in his neck, a problem that never got much better after it surfaced in October. He has worked hard on his rehabilitation at team headquarters throughout the offseason and was cleared by doctors to participate in the minicamp for veterans earlier this month, a shorts-and-helmets affair that did not include any contact.

Plummer took full part in practice sessions, looking active and quick to the ball and showing no discernible signs of a neck problem.

"That's the beginning," he said. "That's the start, just taking it step by step, day by day, and just believing that it's going to be fine."

Plummer is a well-grounded individual, never getting too high or too low, so perhaps he's just being a realist. But there almost seemed to be a trace of pessimism in his voice regarding his hopes of ever shedding the neck problem.

When asked if he never might be 100 percent again, Plummer replied, "Well, I'm believing that it is. That's what I'm believing and (hoping) for, and just take it from there."

Maybe it's just perception, but that didn't quite sound like Plummer really, truly, believes.

"At the beginning of workouts, it was a little tight," he said. "But it just gradually kept getting looser and looser. It's something that I will always have to stay on top of. Even when it feels good, you just have to stay on top of it, and just keep on treating it and keep it from re-aggravating. A lot of things go into it. I'm trying to make sure I take care of all that."

Meanwhile, the 49ers need to take care of covering their hinds.

Nolan has talked in the months since he was hired about the need to have quality cornerbacks circulating throughout his roster. He has mentioned the position several times as a high draft priority.

He also has talked about moving Rumph to free safety, where his rangy skills might be most effective at the pro level. Rumph doesn't want to do it, since he was showing signs of development on the corner in 2003, but that move still is a possibility as the team heads into the draft.

Of course, Rumph's status at any position still is a little shaky at the moment after he surprisingly missed the recent minicamp because he still was experiencing pain in his right forearm, which was shattered when he attempted to make a swinging arm tackle in an October game against St. Louis.

Rumph recently underwent minor surgery to alleviate the problem, and he is expected to return to full strength well before the season begins, though it's now being speculated he might not participate in full practice sessions again until training camp.

And it might take until training camp to learn if Plummer – who still is on the front end of the five-year, $25 million deal he signed a year ago – even will be able to play at all in 2005.

"It's just getting to the contact," he said, "to see how I'll adjust to that."

What to do if you're the Niners? Scramble like hell to grab at least one quality corner in the draft this weekend, that's what.

Fortunately, this is a good year for cornerback prospects. The draft is deep in quality and strong at the top. Don't expect the Niners to wait long to grab one.

It could happen with their first pick, but only if the team trades down into the first third/middle of the first round. Otherwise, look for San Francisco to be staring at the top CB prospects still on the board with the No. 33 overall pick in the second round. Saturday's opening day surely won't pass without the Niners selecting a cornerback.

Any scenario that sees the 49ers trading down – which means they'd be adding more picks in the first and/or second round – means the likelihood of taking a corner early increases significantly.

The Niners will take their corner early because they don't want him to come in as a developmental player. Shawntae Spencer was a surprise as a late second-round pick last year, coming in as the No. 58 overall selection and eventually establishing himself as the best healthy cornerback on the team's entire roster. He started 12 games, led the team with 12 passes defensed and finished seventh with 66 tackles.

But Spencer only played that much because Rumph and Plummer were injured, and because he simply was better than veteran Jimmy Williams, whose wildly inconsistent play won't be missed after he signed recently with New Orleans.

Taking that second-round flyer on an unheralded Spencer proved to be an insurance policy the Niners needed to cash in last season. They need to buy another one on Saturday, and soon.

Niners Digest Top Stories