On the rise: Nate Clements

Nate Clements spends his mornings and afternoons in the hip pocket of 49ers receivers, locking down his side of the field as if he were wearing a No Admittance sign. That's what the Niners expected when they made Clements an $80 million man, but so far he's been a very good investment, looking every bit like a cornerback on the cusp of joining the NFL elite while making the team around him better.

Make the team around him better? Clements has been doing that in more ways than one.

First there's the obvious: With a lockdown cornerback such as Clements in the key left side position, the 49ers now have one of the best in the NFL at one of the game's most volatile positions. Clements has been showing on a daily basis he belongs in that category, living up to the blockbuster eight-year, $80 million deal San Francisco laid on him as a free agent in March that at the time made the seventh-year veteran the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.

Clements has been performing so well in camp against receivers that appear almost overmatched against him that those wideouts regularly have trouble not only snagging a reception against him, but even getting separation from the stocky 6-foot-1, 209-pounder.

And that, in turn, makes them better, if only because they have to try a little harder since they're going against the best.

Explains Darrell Jackson, the team's new No. 1 wideout whose daily toe-to-toe with Clements is one of the best ongoing individual battles in camp: "He's a great corner, and anytime you go against cornerbacks like that, you're going to have your good battles in the NFL. Nate knows what he's doing and he's very smart. I push him, he pushes me, and that's how we get each other better."

And that's what Clements is all about. He's here to make the 49ers better, and has been his best doing that during San Francisco's opening week of training camp. His play in the secondary has been exceptional, and he's clearly been one of the stars of camp so far.

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If that status comes to him, Clements says, it will because he has helped turn the 49ers into winners again. When SFI asked him Wednesday if everything is in place for this to be Nate Clements Time as he enters the prime of his career, he responded, "I don't like to make it an individual thing because this is the ultimate team sport. We all work together. I just want to go out there and do my job the best I can do it. No one player can take over a football game."

But Clements has done a pretty good job taking over quickly in San Francisco's secondary, which is something he considers part of his job description and the reason the 49ers are paying him the big bucks.

"I'm just trying to make us better as a team as well as myself, just trying to go out there and compete and do everything that I can do to make my teammates better by pushing them, and vice versa them pushing me as well," Clements said.

Before Walt Harris joined the team last year and produced the best season of his 11-year career, the 49ers hadn't had a cornerback reach the Pro Bowl since Eric Davis in 1995. Now they have two Pro Bowlers manning their corners, and with Clements apparently as good as advertised, the 49ers promise to have their best pair of starting corners since Davis and Deion Sanders in 1994, the last season the Niners won a Super Bowl.

Harris was fantastic last year and doesn't appear to have lost anything this summer, but Clements is asserting himself as the new sheriff in the San Francisco secondary with his fine summer showing.

"Nate's a good catch both on and off the field," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It's rare that you get a guy in free agency that is as good an accomplished football player, but as well he's going to be even a leader. He's very confident but carries himself well, he works hard, and he plays the complete game."

And that complete game has Clements on the rise at 49ers training camp, even though he was already soaring pretty high when he got there.


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