49ers Need Clements To Learn Safety Dance

When the 49ers signed Nate Clements during the 2007 free agency period to an $80M contract with $22M in guarantees, the deal gave the former Buffalo Bills corner the highest salary of any defensive player in the history of the NFL.

Clements hasn't quite lived up to the expectations of his deal, – who could? – but he's played well enough, showing plenty of determination and grit (as anyone that's been crushed by one of his vicious hits can attest), while also stepping up to the demands of being a team leader.

A quick glance at Clements' statistics will not do him justice; the numbers (or lack thereof) will probably skew the perception of the type of player he's been for the Niners. Over three seasons he's totaled just seven interceptions, four forced fumbles and 163 tackles. Yet anyone who's watched him play can vividly remember Clements hurling his body at ball carriers with complete disregard for his own safety. The idea of making a Deion Sanders-like "business decision" is not something that would ever cross his mind.

It's true that last year, his ninth in the NFL, was a down year for Clements. A couple of subpar performances cost him his starting job at Indianapolis, and during that same game he broke his right shoulder blade returning a punt, something the 49ers hadn't asked him to do the previous two seasons. The injury ended his disappointing season.

In the few games he did play last year, it became apparent that Clements' ability as a top tier cornerback, where the job description entails having to face premiere receivers in the league, often all alone "on an island" was diminishing. Teams were not afraid to go after him, targeting him more than in the past, the most blatant example being their game against Atlanta where Roddy White torched him for eight catches, 210 yards and two touchdowns.

Entering the 2010 season, Clements' future with the organization is in doubt. For now the team is saying that he'll be allowed to battle for the starting left corner position, but if he proves no longer capable as a starter, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the 49ers cut him loose. It would be extremely difficult to keep him on board at his $6 million salary if he's relegated to a backup.

Another path the team can pursue (if Clements can no longer cut it at cornerback) is to move him to safety, where his shortcomings can be masked and his attributes highlighted. The Niners have only to look to their past for proof that such a move can work to great effect.

In 1985, when it became apparent that Ronnie Lott's lack of speed would limit his career at cornerback, Coach Bill Walsh moved him to free safety, where his big hits and instincts could be properly utilized and he wouldn't have to race any of the league's burners. As we all know that move worked out beautifully for the Niners and Lott, whose brilliant career culminated with an induction into the Hall of Fame, where he's remembered more these days for being perhaps the greatest safety ever than for his early days as a corner.

Now Clements is no Ronnie Lott, but there is no denying he's a spectacular talent in his own right. His leadership, impassioned play, and complete disregard for self-preservation, has all been inspiring. If it becomes apparent that Clements can no longer handle playing corner, and the team feels it has to let him go, it would be a shame if they did so without exhausting all possibilities to keep him aboard. After all, it is easy to replace bodies, not so simple to replace character.

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