Season preview positional analysis: DBs

With the 49ers opening the season tonight against Arizona, SFI concludes its nine-part series of breaking down the team by position with an analysis of San Francisco's secondary, including key questions facing the unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team's better or worse at the position compared to last season.

The 49ers made incremental progress in their secondary last season, but it obviously wasn't enough for a team that finished 26th in the NFL in passing defense.

So the Niners, with big money to spend in free agency, went out and did something about it.

San Francisco doled out contracts worth $110 million, including $31.8 million in guaranteed money, to bring in cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis as soon as they hit the open market in March.

And here they are. Clements and Lewis settled into their new roles during the team's spring and summer drills and give the 49ers a considerable upgrade in talent, athleticism and proven performance at both positions. Combining with holdover starters Walt Harris and Mark Roman, the newcomers promise to give San Francisco its best set of secondary starters in more than a decade.

What kind of difference can two high-priced newcomers make?
A big difference. Clements is on the cusp of joining the NFL elite at one of football's most volatile positions, and he has displayed lockdown coverage ability during his first six months with his new team. He gives the 49ers a player who can be left alone in coverage and also can shadow a team's top receiver on any given Sunday. He has fit in well with what the 49ers want to do with their revamped defense, and while the price to get him was exorbitant, he is the kind of difference-making talent the team needs on its roster to take the next step. Lewis isn't in the same category as Clements, but he's a Pro Bowler who brings a physical presence to the secondary and also fits well into the team's new scheme.

What does Clements' arrival mean for Walt Harris?
It means Harris' reward for the best season of his 11-year career is a shift from left cornerback to the right side, and it also means opponents will be coming after him like they seldom did last season. Harris came to the 49ers as a bargain in free agency last year, then stepped into the starting lineup and produced a fabulous season, leading the NFC with a career-high eight interceptions to go along with team-leading totals of 17 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries during a performance that landed him in the Pro Bowl. He'll be seeing a lot more action coming his way this year as opponents avoid Clements and come after Harris the way they started avoiding Harris last year and picking on Shawntae Spencer.

And what becomes of Spencer?
He shifts into a new role as the team's third cornerback, which isn't a bad place for him to be at this stage of his career. Spencer was the team's best cornerback during his first two seasons in the league in 2004-2005, but that was more a reflection on the talent around him. Spencer gives the 49ers a very solid nickel back, and with Mark Roman manning the free safety position, San Francisco will put a very competitive coverage package on the field during passing downs. With holdover veteran Keith Lewis - the special teams standout who did a fine job last year after taking over as a starting safety near midseason - second-year player Marcus Hudson and rookie draft picks Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson all displaying the skills to contribute, the 49ers have the look of a vastly upgraded secondary.

The bottom line: The 49ers paid for it, but they now have a significantly improved secondary that should allow them to compete on a weekly basis with anybody in the league, which is something this unit hasn't been able to say in several years.


Starters to begin season: LCB Nate Clements, RCB Walt Harris, SS Michael Lewis, FS Mark Roman
Reserves: CB Shawntae Spencer, SS Keith Lewis, CB Tarell Brown, FS Dashon Goldson, CB Marcus Hudson, CB Donald Strickland
Key new arrivals: Nate Clements, Michael Lewis, Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson
Key departures: Mike Adams (FS), Chad Williams (SS)
Defensive backs coaches: Johnnie Lynn, third year with team, 14th year of NFL experience; Vance Joseph, third year with team, third year of NFL experience

Strengths: A pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks on the edges in starters Nate Clements and Walt Harris, who both are complete players who perform well in coverage and run support. An athletic, physical presence at strong safety in Michael Lewis. Good young talent and solid depth.

Weaknesses: The 49ers don't have a true center-field ballhawk type to play at free safety, and the safety position in general is lacking in coverage ability.

Fact check: Walt Harris finished his first season as a 49er with a flourish, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for November, then earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in the final week of the season after recording two interceptions, four passes defensed, four tackles and one fumble recovery in San Francisco's season-ending 26-23 overtime victory at Denver.

Vital stat I: 8: Interceptions in 2006 by Walt Harris, a career-high total that led the NFC and were the most interceptions in a season by a 49er since safety Tony Parrish had nine in 2003.

Vital stat II: 13: Interceptions in 2006 by San Francisco defensive backs, 93 percent of the team's overall total of 14 picks.

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