The 49ers signed Reggie Bush over the weekend, but the moves made at cornerback will probably have a greater impact on the team’s ability to win games in 2015. Gone are Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox, the No. 1 and 2 cornerbacks last season. Trent Baalke responded by adding two free agent corners, Chris Cook (who played for the team in 2014) and Shareece Wright, who comes up north after spending the first four years of his career in San Diego.
Culliver and Cox flip-flopped in 2014 — Cox looked like a Pro Bowl candidate in the early part of last season only to regress in the latter half. That’s when Culliver made himself rich by playing as well as he ever has as a professional — although there was a stretch of games in the middle of the 2012 season when Culliver was quite good.
C&C Money Factory
Culliver got a four-year, $32 million contract from Washington worth between $14 million and $16 million guaranteed. That’s a lot of loot, especially compared to the rest of San Francisco’s roster. Kaepernick has the highest total of guaranteed money in his deal of any 49ers (a shade under $13 million). Vernon Davis has $11,112,000 in guarantees, NaVorro Bowman’s contract has $11 million guaranteed, and it goes down from there. Culliver’s average annual salary (usually a worthless designation in the NFL, but still interesting for comparison purposes) would put him in a tie with Torrey Smith for third on the team behind Kaepernick and Bowman.
Cox isn’t making that kind of scratch, but a three-year, $15 million deal is fairly generous for a player who the 49ers and Seahawks released during the 2013 season. Cox came back to the 49ers and contributed in the playoffs that year, then he was at his best in 2014 after Tramaine Brock’s injury pushed Cox into a starting role. He intercepted a team-high five passes, and has experience on the outside and as a nickel/slot corner.
The Wright price
The 49ers’ most expensive corner remains Brock, who signed a four-year, $14 million extension during the 2013 season. The 49ers spent far less on Wright (a one-year contract worth $3 million with a chance to make $4 million) and Cook.
Terms of Cook’s contract were next to impossible to find, but it appears that he’ll be back on a one-year deal. He made $730,000 last year, and after playing just six games and 48 defensive snaps in a season that was cut short with a hamstring injury that sent him to the injured reserve list, it appears likely that he’ll come back at a similarly low cost.
The 49ers general manager is adept at locating relatively inexpensive free agents who can play better than most evaluators think, and rarely has he gotten burned when his own players sign lucrative pacts elsewhere.
Culliver and Cox had their moments, but I wouldn’t trust either of them to perform up to their contracts. Culliver plays a physical style (he was a safety in college) and has good size for the position, but he’s never put together a full season of strong play and has a pending legal case (the brass knuckles incident). Call me crazy, but I’d rather save that kind of guaranteed money for a player who isn’t known for making questionable decisions.
Cox is great as a No. 4 corner, because he can play just about anywhere. However, t’s completely understandable to look at that price tag and say “no thanks” considering his overall resume.
Another Baalke strength: getting strong value on his cornerback acquisitions, either via free agency or the draft. Carlos Rogers was instrumental in that 2011 team becoming a top-five defense instead of one that could only stop the run. Baalke drafted Culliver in the third round. Cook looked great in the preseason and handled himself just fine during the season until getting hurt. Baalke found Cox on the scrap heap — twice. I’m still not sure why they released the speedy Darryl Morris, who hooked on with the Texans and played decently last year, but Baalke found him, too. Even Eric Wright made some plays in his brief time with the 49ers; it appeared that his career was derailed due to personal issues rather than an inability to play the position.
Current depth chart (the top five)
- Tramaine Brock — Ball magnet who dealt with toe problems from Week 1 on
- Shareece Wright — If Baalke sees something in him, there’s probably something there
- Jimmie Ward — the team’s nickel corner until the 49ers decide to part ways with Antoine Bethea
- Dontae Johnson — Played brilliantly at times, got torched over the season’s last four games; long and lanky
- Chris Cook — Big corner who appeared to put his rep as a guy who couldn’t catch behind him during training camp
Guys who’ll compete for roster spots
- Marcus Cromartie — Played 25 snaps in 2014
- Leon McFadden — Played 85 snaps and had two PBUs
- Cameron Fuller — Local guy (Richmond, CA) who was recently promoted from the practice squad
- Keith Reaser — Drafted in the fifth round despite undergoing two surgeries on his ACL in a four-month span (“his body was rejecting a graft used in the first operation,” according to 49ers.com)
- Kenneth Acker — My dark horse pick to contribute in 2015; played very well in 2014 preseason before landing on IR; confident, good ball skills
— Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 16, 2015
On the surface, this potentially looks like a solid move if Baalke signs him. Moore, who attended Deer Valley High in Antioch, had seven starts and 13 pass breakups last season. He was PFF’s 22nd-ranked corner, allowing no touchdowns on 70 targets. However, it could be a minor red flag that he was a restricted free agent who became available when he was non-tendered by the Cowboys.
With Torrey Smith joining the team, it’s no longer a lock that they’ll draft a wide receiver with the 15th overall pick (if that was ever the case). However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll draft a cornerback in the first round either. I said on Yahoo SportsTalk Live that they’d end up taking Trae Waynes or Jalen Collins with the 15th pick (and got mocked by Jim Kozmor, who noted that the 49ers took defensive backs in the first round in 2013 and 2014). I think Collins makes a lot of sense, while Waynes may have Combined his way into the top-10, but the 49ers also need pass rushers to help the defensive backs who are already on the roster.
Whatever the 49ers decide, I have confidence that Baalke will get plenty of production and value from the team’s cornerbacks in 2015. I’m not necessarily sure that’ll be the case on the other side of the ball, and there may be some drop-off after losing a good defensive backs coach in Ed Donatell (although his replacement, Tim Lewis, has plenty of experience). But when it comes to the team’s greatest concerns going into next season, the cornerback position definitely shouldn’t be in anyone’s top five.