Training camp battleground: Left cornerback

One of the 49ers' biggest priorities entering the 2006 offseason was to improve their starting talent at cornerback through free agency or the draft. What they came away with is Walt Harris. That may be a disappointment to some, but you make the best of what you've got, and the Niners at least have assembled a new cast to challenge Harris for the starting role this summer. But is that an upgrade?

Considering what they got from the position last year, it almost has to be.

From a flaming-out Ahmed Plummer playing on his last NFL legs, to an up-and-down run by Bruce Thornton, with a little bit of rookie Derrick Johnson sprinkled in between, the guys who manned the left cornerback outpost were as much responsible as anyone for the Niners finishing a distant last in the NFL in passing defense while allowing a team-record 4,427 yards through the air.

Plummer was San Francisco's opening-day starting left cornerback in each of the past six seasons, and the 49ers literally paid to dump him from the roster this spring after he played just three games in 2005 due to a foot injury and quickly fell out of favor with coach Mike Nolan.

It wasn't long ago the 49ers thought they were set for several seasons to come on the left corner with Plummer after former general manager Terry Donahue inked him to a five-year, $25 million deal that included an $11 million signing bonus in 2004. The 49ers ultimately got only nine games of worth – and not a very effective nine games at that – from Plummer, who missed the team's other 23 games over the past two seasons with injuries while infuriating some team officials with an apparent lack of dedication to get back on the field.

Plummer's gone now after the team ate $6.6 million in pro-rated signing bonus against its 2006 cap to release him in February, and the 49ers have been left picking up the pieces ever since.

They missed out on some of the big names that went quickly in free agency in March, but they were able to land Harris, who has been an adequate starting NFL cornerback of relative quality (20 career interceptions and 100 passes defensed) the past 10 seasons with the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins.

Harris has started 127 of his 147 games in the NFL – including 12 last year with the Redskins – and that's experience that cannot be denied. It's also, however, an indication that his best days are behind him, and most thought the 49ers were bringing him in for proven veteran depth at the position and, perhaps, to work in secondary coverage packages as the nickel back.

But when spring practices began in May, the 49ers plopped Harris into the starting position at left cornerback – ahead of other contenders including Thornton, who started 11 of the team's final 12 games there in 2005 – and he has been there ever since.

Showing fresh legs and the obvious skills of his vast NFL experience, Harris has held off the spring challenges of a bunch of young and unproven youngsters for the position, not to mention the challenges of a couple of former first-round draft picks who haven't exactly lived up to their first-round pedigree.

That's Mike Rumph, the 49ers' first-round choice in 2002, and Sammy Davis, a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2003 whom the Niners were happy to pick up when they dumped former first-rounder Rashaun Woods earlier this spring.

Both Rumph and Davis might already be down to their last chance in the NFL, and Rumph almost certainly is down to his last shot with the 49ers after failing in a conversion to free safety last season. While each will get a look as a starting candidate, both probably are playing for roster berths as backups who could contribute in specific roles in secondary coverage packages.

That leaves Thornton and Johnson as Harris' top challengers as training camp looms, since it doesn't appear that the Niners will be bringing in any other starting contenders before summer practice sessions begin.

After Harris and Davis were brought in this spring, the team still was looking for an upgrade, as Nolan indicated after being asked if the team was looking for another corner in free agency.

"We don't have to through free agency, but we will be looking," Nolan replied. "It might be something with another team. We're open to whatever it takes."

Nolan continued, "Defensive backs are easy to find, but good defensive backs are hard to find and we'll be particular with what we add there. We've added some depth there in the offseason and also with injury and getting Mike Rumph back, but Mike never had a chance to prove himself with us. 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. The addition of the two corners, Sammy Davis and Harris are the two guys that I am hoping will give us some depth. I have seen that Walt Harris still has his legs, which is huge for a veteran corner. Sammy has shown an ability to help us in the secondary, if not as a starter, then in the nickel defense. A healthy secondary will be better than it was last year; the addition of a couple guys will make it better. I don't believe those strides are big enough right now, for my liking, but at the same time that is where we are at."

And that appears where the 49ers will stay at as summer practice sessions begin, with Harris being pushed by a couple of young players who have yet to show much as legitimate NFL cornerbacks.

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