Nolan making statement that nobody is safe

Mike Nolan always said he was going to fix things when he came to the 49ers. Nothing needed fixing more this year than a secondary that was the toast of the NFL last season - and we don't mean that in a complimentary way. In fixing that unit over the past two days, Nolan sent a message to his team that nobody is safe, not even players who spent significant time in the starting lineup in 2005.

Bruce Thornton started 11 games at left cornerback last season and Ben Emanuel started seven games at strong safety, and each of those young players showed promise and played to generally positive reviews from Nolan and his staff.

But now we know the truth. Thornton and Emanuel both were what some suspected they were when they arrived last year off the free-agent scrap heap - stopgap players who were only filling space because the Niners had nothing better to put at their positions after the team was hit by a steady rash of injuries in the secondary last year.

And, clearly, that's not enough to get the 49ers where Nolan wants to take them.

So, when the Niners upgraded their talent and competition in the secondary during the offseason with veteran free agents Walt Harris and Chad Williams, two draft picks and veteran Sammy Davis via trade, then added another veteran free agent in Mark Roman two days ago, guys such as Thornton and Emanuel were left on the cutting room floor.

They no longer figure into the Big Picture with the 49ers.

With training camp less than a week old, it might come as a surprise that the 49ers would dump two young, developing players who figured to be better this year for the trials they went through and experience they received last season, because both figured to at least challenge to the end of the summer for backup roles that would give the team the depth it never had last year.

Uh-uh. Thornton and Emanuel - though they did some nice things with the team last year - just couldn't keep up. This isn't your 2005 49ers any longer, and those two players were the first to find out.

"Those are two dudes I came in with," said cornerback B.J. Tucker, one of the survivors of the early secondary purge who - like Thornton and Emanuel - also was signed as a free agent after last season began. "Bruce was my roommate last year, and I hung out with Ben a lot. But it's part of the business."

And the bottom line of that business is that the 49ers have to make changes to get better after being torched for 4,427 passing yards last season, the most allowed in the 60-year history of the franchise and by far the most allowed in the NFL last season.

After taking stock of the situation and evaluating what they had in the secondary, the 49ers now are taking measures to distance themselves from that performance. Erstwhile starting cornerback Ahmed Plummer and the final three years on his $25 million contract were the first to go in February. Thornton and Emanuel were next.

"I really don't know what to say about that part of it," Tucker said. "Everybody's out there making plays in the secondary and just coming out and really competing. That's what the coaches said they wanted. The competition level is there, and they're just looking for people to make plays. When the decision comes, that's their decision. So you just go and take care of your business. You can't really worry about what somebody else is doing."

Nolan said Tucker's fine play in camp so far was one of the reasons Thornton was expendable. But Davis - a steal from the San Diego Chargers in a straight-up summer trade for former No. 1 draft pick Rashaun Woods, since Woods was released by the Chargers on Tuesday - also had moved past Thornton at cornerback, and so had Derrick Johnson, last year's sixth-round draft pick whose potential the team still likes.

Former first-rounder Mike Rumph also should be included in that category, though you get the feeling Rumph might be the next to go as Nolan continues to clean house. It's no secret Rumph faces an uphill battle to remain with the team, and if the 49ers had to cut down to a 53-man roster today, he probably wouldn't be on it.

"It confirms what I've been saying all along about the competition and that we have much better competition than we had a year ago," Nolan said. "But there was more in-depth to it just than letting two guys go that we picked up last year that didn't go to training camp. I feel that the competition and the guys we have right now put us in a position where we can do that.

"When you have competition, guys either get better or they get pushed out of position. Either way, it makes our football team better. But I would say both (Thornton and Emanuel) got pushed out of position."

The pushing and shoving has just begun. Mike Nolan is fixing things with the 49ers this summer, and the secondary was as good a place to start as any.

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