Analysis: Mike Rumph's last stand at corner

Mike Rumph finally could be on the way to fulfilling his first-round potential after four years of flaming out with the 49ers. Either that, or his days with the team are numbered. Rumph is down to his last shot with the Niners, which also happens to be his first shot at CB before the watchful eyes of the Mike Nolan regime, and he knows that it's now or never if he's going to make it with the team.

And so, the 27th player selected in the 2002 NFL draft virtually finds himself starting over yet again as he prepares for his fifth season in San Francisco – if that season even comes.

There's no guarantee it will.

Rumph doesn't have to look around too hard or far to see that first-rounders taken before and after him by the team – despite their draft-day pedigree and San Francisco's resulting investment in them - didn't stick once Nolan and his crew took command. Julian Peterson (2000), Ahmed Plummer (2000) and Andre Carter (2001) – the three first-rounders taken directly before Rumph by the Niners – all of them gone. Rashaun Woods – the disappointing 2004 first-rounder – also gone.

Will Rumph be next?

There was much to suggest so in September when Rumph, failing to make the transition from cornerback to free safety, was cryptically singled out by Nolan as a player who let down the 49ers in their overtime home loss to Dallas when San Francisco had an opportunity to begin the season 2-1.

The next day, Rumph was demoted from the starting lineup and moved back to cornerback with no guarantee that he would start there. Two days later – after a player's day off – he tore the plantar fascia in his right foot in practice. Instead of taking time to evaluate the injury to see if Rumph could return later in the season, the 49ers immediately opted to end his season by placing him on injured reserve.

Some thought Rumph might never be seen with the 49ers again.

But he emerged at the team's spring minicamp earlier this month as a leaner model of his former self, possessing a fresh attitude and looking forward to another chance to prove himself as a pro – likely his last chance to do so with the 49ers.

Nobody has to tell Rumph that his roster berth with this team no longer is guaranteed, like it was earlier in his career because of his high draft status, then more recently because of his status as a starter.

He's a starter no more, and Rumph knows he has something to prove. Make that, a lot to prove.

In fact, as the 49ers get ready for a series of organized team activity sessions that begin next week, Rumph feels like he basically is taking part in an audition.

"That's mainly it," he said. "They haven't seen me. I've been injured. My first day at corner, I got injured. That's exactly what it is, it's an audition, so I'm going to come in like it's my first day, like I'm starting all over again."

That's an appropriate approach for Rumph to take, because that's basically what he's doing. The 49ers have lined up a logjam of veterans and youngsters of all shapes and sizes and experience levels to try to sort out one of their most problematic positions in recent seasons. Rumph doesn't really rate ahead of any of them, until he gives the 49ers reason to think otherwise.

In fact, even though the 49ers are hurting for a legitimate starting talent opposite Shawntae Spencer – the team's solid starter at right cornerback – the Niners opted to put free-agent pickup Walt Harris, an aging veteran in his 11th NFL season, No. 1 on the depth chart at left cornerback ahead of Rumph at the team's May minicamp.

Rumph, who was emerging as a NFL cornerback while starting 13 games in 2003 before injuries derailed his career, took it all in stride.

"I just want to get better," he said. "Help get everybody better and get better myself. When I was at corner (before), I honestly felt like I was on my way. I was doing good and I was getting better and better and then I ended up getting injured (a broken arm that doomed his 2004 season after four games), and the next thing I know I'm a safety."

Rumph made that move at the request of Nolan when the latter arrived last year, because the Niners had Spencer and Plummer starting on the corners and Nolan wanted to get Rumph and his rangy hitting ability on the field.

But Rumph was torched often at free safety, getting caught out of position, taking bad angles and proving unable to handle the responsibilities of reading offensive sets and being the quarterback of the secondary. Rumph's shoddy performance cost him points in the eyes of San Francisco's new coaches, and he didn't get an opportunity to get back in their good graces because he was injured in practice before the team's fourth game.

Now, getting back in good graces means having to fight just to stay on the roster.

"I always go in with that mind frame," Rumph said. "It's like my first day. I understand the coaching staff. They haven't seen me at the position. I don't have any credibility with these guys. So I'm just going at it like I'm a rookie. I want to be here, and I just want to come in and do what I can to help.

"I told coach Nolan that I'd play wherever they need me to play. If it's free safety, corner, strong (safety), nickel – whatever. Just as long as I'm out there, I don't mind."

Rumph definitely will get at least that opportunity. The 49ers are anxious to see what he has as they continue to weed out those holdover parts that don't fit into the Nolan plan.

"Mike never had a chance to prove himself with us," Nolan said. "He was a safety and it wasn't a match. He'll be back outside at corner where he feels most confident and comfortable. We'll have him pressing and doing the things he is most comfortable with."

And, as he eased into secondary drills earlier this month, Rumph looked confident and comfortable back at cornerback and didn't look like a player encumbered by the pressure of having to perform to keep a job.

He looked fresh, quick and fluid and made plays both at cornerback and in the nickel back role that also could be his if he doesn't crack the starting lineup. Rumph, who played at 205 pounds last year, said he is down to 196 pounds and has trimmed his body fat from 12 percent to six percent.

"I definitely leaned up a little bit, changed my diet, did a little bit more lean organic stuff," Rumph said. "I'm a California guy now. As far as mind frame, I had to change that a little bit, too."

With good reason. Since struggling during his NFL indoctrination as a rookie, Rumph has spent most of his time atop the depth chart. But now he has guys such as Harris in front of him and Bruce Thornton and Derrick Johnson – who combined for 16 starts at cornerback for the Niners last season – alongside him in the pecking order.

Mike Adams, B.J. Tucker, Kris Richard and Sammy Davis are other young veterans who will get a look at cornerback this spring and summer, and if Rumph isn't markedly better than they are, the 49ers will cut their losses and move on, as they have done with several other high draft picks from the former regime. And, it also is possible – perhaps likely – the 49ers will bring in another experienced veteran of starting quality to challenge for the all-important starting role opposite Spencer.

"I think it's good," Rumph said when SFI asked him about the logjam at cornerback. "It brings a lot of depth, a lot of experience. We've got some great safeties, a lot of veteran players, guys that have played and been starters, that are proven winners, guys that want to come out and compete. It's going to make us all better, the whole team."

To be a part of that team in 2006, Rumph has to show better than he did during his first four seasons in 49erland. This is his last stand at cornerback, and he either holds up or gets shipped out like others before him who are linked to the team's dismal drop into the NFL abyss.

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