49ers key to success: CB Nate Clements

The 49ers need to get their money's worth from Nate Clements to make progress this season. Maybe not $80 million worth, but the team's high-priced prize in free agency needs to play at a Pro Bowl level and make an impact at left corner for San Francisco's defense to take the next step toward the middle of the NFL rankings. Which, of course, is exactly why the 49ers paid Clements the big bucks.

Clements is the real deal at cornerback. Maybe not a Champ Bailey kind of real deal, but he has the size, speed and difficult-to-find skills that make him arguably among the 10 best players at perhaps the NFL's most volatile position.

His presence alone promises to have a ripple effect across the entire defensive unit, which can operate a whole lot more efficiently when it has a big cover corner draped to the opponent's top receiver practically every down.

That's a role Clements could play if teams go away from him and start picking on other defensive backs, although the rest of the San Francisco secondary – particularly at cornerback – probably is as strong as it has been in at least a decade. He has the ability to shadow the other team's top target throughout a game, something he did occasionally during his time in Buffalo.

Clements certainly looked the part with the 49ers this spring, stepping comfortably into his rather prominent role in the defense and showing a personable demeanor and leadership quality.

And, importantly, he has the confidence to excel on the edge.

With all those dollar signs attached to his name – the 49ers made Clements the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history in March with an eight-year, $80 million deal – the heat is on Clements to produce, and to produce immediately.

It's all a part of what he signed up for, Clements says.

"I don't allow that type of pressure to get to me, especially in the position that I play," Clements said. "There's always going to be pressure going up against that No. 1 guy. I accept it as a challenge. I just accept it as a challenge, and I'm definitely game. I think that's where I stake my claim – it's being up to the challenge that you put your No. 1 corner on my No. 1 receiver and let's go at it."

If Clements can lock onto the opposing team's top receivers each week, it will allow the 49ers to give additional focus to other areas of their passing coverage, and also allow San Francisco's pass rush a little more time to get to opposing quarterbacks. That's the ripple effect we're talking about.

With Pro Bowler Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer competing on the other side, with one of them likely to serve as the team's nickel back, the 49ers promise to have their best quality at cornerback since the last time they won a Super Bowl in 1994.

Now that quality needs to be turned into performance, and it all starts with Clements.

"I'm confident," Clements said. "I'm confident in my ability and what I can do. That's just who I am. I say that I'm the best and I say that with conviction."

And, ultimately, that figures to have a big say in the success of San Francisco's defense in 2007.

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