Training camp battleground: Right cornerback

This is what Mike Nolan was talking about when he arrived in 2005 and said he wanted better competition at every position to make the 49ers better. Two years later, go try and tell that to Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer. Harris made the Pro Bowl last year and Spencer is one of SF's best young veterans, but now the team's two starting CBs from 2006 find themselves fighting for the same position.

Such is life in the NFL when the team you play for goes out during the offseason and spends $80 million to acquire one of the premier players available in 2007 free agency.

That player - Nate Clements - also happens to play cornerback. So, even though 12th-year veteran Harris is coming off the finest season of his career and Spencer is just entering his prime after starting each of his first three NFL seasons, one of them is going to the bench.

If you're somebody who wants to see the 49ers get better on defense, you have to love that kind of scenario.

If you're Harris or Spencer, it sucks.

Neither did anything much during 2006 to lose his starting position, though Spencer's play sagged a bit as the season progressed and opponents started coming after him with Harris playing so well on the other side.

It was just last season that Spencer was locked in as a starter after signing a five-year, $20 million contract extension and gaining some attention as one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL.

And it also was just last season that Harris flashed onto the scene in San Francisco with the best season of his 11-year career, taking over at left cornerback and producing a spectacular season during which he led the NFC in interceptions and consistently made plays throughout the year while earning his first Pro Bowl berth.

But after the 49ers went out and made Clements the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, Harris and Spencer now are left to vie for the starting position opposite Clements, who has been inserted at the left cornerback spot manned last year by Harris.

To the loser goes a consolation prize - the role of nickel back, a position that also figures to see a lot of playing time in San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme.

Both Harris and Spencer, however, have proved themselves in the NFL as starting material.

So this battle really is one to watch in training camp.

Harris, cast off during the 2006 offseason by the Washington Redskins, his third NFL team, astounded observers last season by stepping into the 49ers lineup and becoming not only the star of the team's secondary, but also an impact player who played a big part in San Francisco's overall improvement as a team.

Not many people believe that Harris can duplicate that performance, but Harris - who turns 33 three days before San Francisco's preseason opener this summer - told SFI during and after last season that he never has felt better physically, and feels he actually still is getting better as a player because of the way he has learned over recent years to take care of his body.

But it remains to be seen if he can keep it up. Harris' game presented very few weaknesses last year, when he showed the ability to hold up in coverage in both man-to-man and zone situations, a good nose for the football, and sure tackling in run support and the open field.

What more can you ask for from a cornerback?

Well, in Harris' case, to do it all again.

Harris probably will have to show this summer that he can continue to play at a level comparable to last season to remain a starter with a defense that is looking to grow and move forward.

Harris did it all last season - his eight interceptions were a career high, and he also led the 49ers in three other defensive categories with five forced fumbles, 17 pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. He even recorded just the second sack of his career while finishing seventh on the team with 71 tackles.

Spencer, however, has more athletic ability, and his ball skills have improved each season since he arrived as San Francisco's second-round draft choice in 2004. Before Harris was brought in last year, Spencer - despite his youth - clearly had established himself as the best cornerback on the San Francisco roster, recording a team-high four interceptions in 2005.

At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Spencer is quick and rangy, and he turns well to run with receivers and has the length to fight with them for the ball when it arrives. And, while Harris' experience gives him a significant edge in that area, Spencer still is ascending as a player and improving his game.

But after a solid start last season, Spencer's performance leveled off after he signed his extension in September. His play turned inconsistent and he was singled out in coverage by opponents. He did not appear to progress much in his development during the course of the season.

That brought about a few whispers within the organization that Spencer, though talented, might never have the disposition to be the kind of Pro Bowl-level cornerback the 49ers envision sending out to represent the pivotal corner positions of their defense, which ultimately they plan to make the strength of the team.

So, the 49ers went out and forked over the big bucks to land Clements. Which, in the process, makes for one interesting training camp battle on the side opposite him this summer.


2006 starter: Shawntae Spencer
The incumbent: Spencer
The veteran: Walt Harris
The skinny: Harris joined the 49ers last year and in his first season became a team leader and secondary star while earning the first Pro Bowl berth of his 11-year career. He was at the top of his game last season, but turns 33 in August and isn't getting any younger. After signing a five-year contract extension in September, the 25-year-old Spencer was inconsistent the remainder of the year and now finds himself in a position of having to prove himself all over again to the team's brass in his fourth NFL season.
The starting edge: Harris

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