3 Burning Questions: Defensive back

Mike Nolan wants to get his best players on the field at every position. He felt a bit challenged when it came time to do that this year in the 49ers' defensive backfield.

So he moved Mike Rumph to free safety, just when the former first-round draft pick finally seemed to be getting the hang of it at cornerback. He slid Shawntae Spencer into Rumph's old position on the right corner, even though that opened glaring voids at nickel back and in the team's depth at the position.

Not to worry. Nolan had a plan. He selected two athletic cornerbacks late in the April draft, and one of them - sixth-rounder Derrick Johnson - tied for the NFL lead with three preseason interceptions. Nolan engineered a mid-July trade to bring in Willie Middlebrooks from Denver, which heightened competition in training camp, but the coach then decided he had a better player on his own squad already in young Mike Adams.

Now the Niners have four capable veteran starters to put on the field in their secondary, and improving depth behind them. That's a good thing, because the 49ers could make neither claim as last year's disastrous season came to a close, by which time San Francisco's secondary had been hit by injury and ineptitude as much as any unit on the team.

Q: What's to make anybody believe it will be different this year?

It's true that Rumph and left cornerback Ahmed Plummer must bounce back from season-ending injuries and prove once again that they belong. It's true that strong safety Tony Parrish must bounce back from a 2004 season that was a down year by his recent high standards. It's true that Spencer still is young, raw and a bit unproven – not exactly the best combination for success at one of the NFL's most demanding positions. It's also true that, collectively, this foursome has the potential to be San Francisco's best secondary since the team's turnaround season of 2001.

Q: Isn't that putting an awfully rosy spin on things?

Maybe. Plummer still has to prove he can leave behind his scary neck injury from last year, caused by a bulging disk that still could be a recurring problem once the hard hits start coming on a weekly basis. And, let's face it, Plummer hasn't been the same player since his seven-interception sophomore season of 2001, when he established himself as one of the league's top young cornerbacks. Plummer is in the second year of a $25 million contract, so the new regime is obligingly committed to him this season. But he needs to regain his previous form, because there will be youngsters eager to step in if he stumbles. Rumph, full of hard-hitting vim, also must prove he has the intelligence and discipline to hold down the last line of San Francisco's defense. It's not inaccurate to say how well Plummer and Rumph perform this season will have a decisive impact on their futures as 49ers. But Spencer is a rising talent who might already be the team's best cover corner, and Parrish is a warhorse who still has some Pro Bowl-level performance left for his eighth NFL season. "I'm kind of semi-secure in Ahmed Plummer, Tony Parrish, Mike Rumph and Shawntae Spencer in that they are least players," Nolan said.

Q: And if those guys don't work out?

They need to work out. If they don't, then there's Johnson, whose NFL debut in the team's August preseason opener resulted in two interceptions, one of which he returned 87 yards for a game-swaying touchdown. Then there's unheralded Adams, who has made an impression at both cornerback and safety while winning the nickel back role to push Middlebrooks off the team in a roster surprise. There's also young veterans Dwaine Carpenter - who can play both corner and safety - and Keith Lewis, one of the hardest hitters on the team who still is developing his coverage skills. The Niners are starting the season with just eight defensive backs, but if they can stay healthy, it should be an improved and much more effective unit than last season's shoddy group.

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