Training camp battleground: Cornerback

The acquisition of Willie Middlebrooks changes everything at cornerback for the 49ers. With the team's uncertainty at that position, Middlebrooks could take away a place in the starting lineup from Ahmed Plummer or Shawntae Spencer if he's at the top of his game. If he flounders, Middlebrooks could be challenged for the important nickel back role by one of the four youngsters who were prepared to fight it out to be the team's third cornerback before Middlebrooks was brought in Friday via trade.

Since taking over as coach in January, Mike Nolan has said he plans to put his best 11 players on the field on each side of the ball. That includes his best four defensive backs, which played heavily into the decision to move Mike Rumph to free safety.

Now that Rumph is in the deep middle, Middlebrooks was brought in to help fill the void created by Rumph's departure at cornerback, and he might fight his way onto the field as one of San Francisco's best four defensive backs by the end of training camp.

Nolan said Middlebrooks could possibly challenge to be San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback. Nolan also said the team expects the 2001 first-round draft choice to at least be the team's third cornerback, playing the nickel back role in secondary coverage packages in the team's new 3-4 defense.

Middlebrooks never reached his NFL potential in four seasons with the Denver Broncos, but he was contributing last year as a third cornerback before injuring his leg in December and ending the season on injured reserve. He wasn't going to beat out Champ Bailey and Lenny Walls in Denver, and would have been competing with Denver's top three draft picks from April – each of them cornerbacks – for the nickel back role with the Broncos.

Instead, he'll be battling it out with two low-round picks from the April draft – Derrick Johnson and Daven Holly – along with second-year players Rayshun Reed and Joselio Hanson for the nickel back role with the 49ers.

Reed was a surprise and got some extensive playing time as an undrafted rookie late last year after Rumph and Plummer each were lost for the season, a development that also gave undrafted free agent Hanson an opportunity to make three starts.

Reed and Hanson have the NFL experience afforded them from last year's injury disaster, but Johnson and Holly are more athletic and more heralded coming out of college.

Instead of Middlebrooks, it might be Spencer fighting off the younger players to be the third cornerback. But Spencer made considerable strides last year as a rookie, living up to his surprising second-round status by starting 12 games and leading San Francisco cornerbacks in tackles (66) and passes defensed (12). Middlebrooks will have to show something to top that, especially since Spencer will be improved over last year, a season he finished as clearly the team's top cover corner.

There are lingering concerns about Plummer's neck problem recurring once the pads go on, but he has looked sharp this spring and could reclaim his status as the Niners' top corner again if he proves he can hold up.

As long as he does, expect Plummer (left corner) and Spencer (right corner) to hold onto the starting jobs they'll occupy when training camp begins July 29. Middlebrooks will be the nickel back, and he'll be a good fit as a 3-4 nickel at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, which easily makes him San Francisco's biggest cornerback now that Rumph is patrolling center field.

Those players now are the Big Three at cornerback for the 49ers, leaving a battle of attrition between youngsters below them for the remaining roster berths.

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