Grading the talent: Cornerback and safety

The talent level on the San Francisco defense was a subject open to criticism during the 2006 season, so SFI asked former NFL scout Russ Lande to take a detailed look at what the 49ers have at each position on that side of the football. Here, in the final segment of a four-part series analyzing the 49ers' team-wide talent, Russ picks apart San Francisco's secondary as the team heads into 2007.

Shawntae Spencer I think is a guy the 49ers had real high hopes for this year, and I think he has flashed good stuff for them, but I don't think he has been as consistent as they like. He hasn't been the kind of player you can count on every down. There have been times he has been good and times where he has blown coverage. Talent-wise there is no question he is good enough, but he just hasn't played consistently enough where they are going to go into the offseason thinking of him as a sure starter. I think they will look at it as if he is the guy who could be the starter if he improves a lot, but they are not going to assume he's going to be fine next season, even though the team signed him in September to a five-year contract extension that will pay him at least $8.5 in guaranteed money. Right now, he is ideally a team's third corner, but the problem is, of the starting 64 cornerbacks in the league only 20 to 25 of them are of starting quality in my mind - the rest of them are sort of mix-and-match type guys that aren't really suited to be starters. Based on that, he would probably be a starter somewhere.

Walt Harris is a smart, very consistent corner. The elite ability that he came into the league with is probably no longer there - he'll never be that flashy All-Pro type guy. But he has good ability now, and he has really come on this year in his 11th season, playing as well as he ever has in his career, which is kind of surprising. And when you combine that with his leadership and all the intangibles, he is a good, solid starter that could start for nearly every team. He is not going to make that big gaffe that just kills a team. He is really a smart player who plays poised and under control. He'll play solid each and every down, as he has shown with the Niners this season while leading the NFC with a career-high eight interceptions this season.

I think the guy that will start at either corner or safety next season is the kid Marcus Hudson that they drafted in the sixth round this year. There have obviously been some bad moments this season where he has made some mistakes, but I think he has been a surprise for them and has played well for them at times, too. In college he showed his great versatility - that was the biggest thing, he's played all over the secondary. He was productive and smart and has good size for a corner. He doesn't have all the great measurables like 40 time and vertical jump, but when you watch film he just makes plays. The guy is a football player.

Mark Roman is a talented guy. I don't think he is as consistent a tackler as is ideal. He has sort of bounced around the league, started here and there. In an ideal situation he'd be a team's backup safety. But the 49ers have not had good, consistent play at safety so he has been put back into the starter's role. You can get by with him as a starter; he's adequate. There were not going to be very many quality safeties available in free agency this year, so the 49ers gave Roman a three-year contract extension before he could hit the open market, which probably was a pretty good move, and a safe move at the very least for the team.

Keith Lewis is a kid who has improved a lot. He's a heavy hitter. I think they like him, and hope that he continues to improve. Right now he is sort of a guy they still expect more from, but I think they are happy with the progress he's made. He didn't appear to have the coverage skills and speed coming out of college to be an adequate starter, but he has changed that opinion with his play after being given an opportunity to start in 2006. And he really lays the wood to people. He adds a physical presence to their secondary.

Ideally, Mike Adams is a backup in the league. But the problem, again, is that the 49ers don't really have anybody at safety that you get excited about. You really want a guy who has a chance to make some plays, and ideally isn't going to make any big mistakes, is a tough kid, competitive and smart. I think Adams fits those characteristics, but I don't think he is the ideal guy that they want as their starter. He'll do a decent job, but you would like better.

For all the faults in the secondary, the reality is you have to get to the quarterback no matter how good your secondary is. And if you don't get to the quarterback, it doesn't matter. Your corners aren't going to be able to cover that long no matter who they are. Even if you have Champ Bailey and Deion Sanders, if you don't get pressure they are going to look bad.

Former NFL Scout Russ Lande, draft analyst and author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft, an annual publication, contributes periodically to SFI. To find out more about Lande and GM Jr, visit the web site www.gmjr.com.


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