Chris Culliver

Why the 49ers might consider sitting Culliver when Brock returns

Jimmie Ward 49ers

Tramaine Brock probably won’t return until after the 49ers’ bye week (according to Matt Maiocco, who uses sound logic). There’s no reason to rush him back at this point, particularly because Perrish Cox is playing extremely well at left cornerback. Whether you look at the stats (three interceptions, fifth best cornerback in the NFL through five games according to Pro Football Focus) or watch him cover and make plays on the ball, it’s obvious that Cox isn’t going to be this team’s fourth cornerback anytime soon.

Vic Fangio was asked on Thursday what they’d do once Brock returns from his toe injury. “We’ll figure that out then,” said Fangio, who then faced a follow-up query about Cox.

“He definitely has played well. And his play has merited playing. That’ll be a good problem to have and we’ll solve it.”

Perrish Cox 49ersEric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle talked to former 49ers cornerback and color analyst Eric Davis. Davis knows a little about this subject, and not just because of his ties to the 49ers — Davis played on a Fangio-led defense for three seasons (1996-98) in Carolina.

“(Cox is) making too many plays,” said Davis, 46, an NFL Network analyst who was a two-time Pro Bowler in his 13-year NFL career. “He’s not going to come off the field. The only question is, how are they going to work him in? It’s really that simple. You don’t take production off the field, ever.”

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“He is playing as sound at the position as anybody in the league,” Davis said. “It’s ridiculous the way he’s playing. He’s taking full advantage. Like a veteran should do and understands how to do, he’s taking full advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.

“Jobs are not won or lost in the NFL. Opportunities are given and taken. And he’s taking advantage of his opportunity to be on the field.”

Cox is taking a job. But whose? The obvious choice would be rookie Jimmie Ward, who was abused by Brandon Marshall in Week 2 in the red zone. However, Ward has shown incremental improvement each week and the secondary as a whole has performed much better in the last two wins. So while Ward could see less playing time when Brock is back to full health, expect the 49ers to at least consider moving Chris Culliver — who’s bigger and slower than Ward — out of the top three for two specific reasons.

1. The 49ers have a lot more invested in Ward

Ward is a rookie, but he’s a first round pick who’s getting $5.7 million guaranteed. Culliver is an unrestricted free agent after the season. However, Trent Baalke’s priorities might not mesh with those of Fangio or Ed Donatell. The coaches want to win games now, especially since Jim Harbaugh’s situation puts the rest of the staff’s future in doubt for 2015. Wait, the GM and coaching staff could be at odds? That’s crazy talk!

2. Who plays in the slot?

Culliver has played on the outside throughout his professional career. Cox was mostly in the slot before this season, and he’s thriving at left corner. When Cox was in the slot, quarterbacks had a rating of around 105 when targeting him in each of the last two seasons. Maybe he’s a better player this season regardless of where the 49ers utilize his coverage skills, but it sure looks like Cox is thriving on the outside. Brock split his time almost equally between the right and left sides last year, by the way.

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Culliver had a nice performance against Philadelphia and Riley Cooper, but he struggled against Michael Floyd (three catches on three targets for 68 yards, including a 45-yarder) a week earlier. He wasn’t targeted much by Alex Smith, and Culliver batted away Smith’s throw to A.J. Jenkins in the Chiefs’ last “drive.” Culliver has more experience and he’s a very physical corner, but is that enough to bench a first-rounder? With two road games remaining until the bye week, including one against the Broncos and a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, we could be looking at a two-week tryout of sorts for Culliver and Ward (unless Cox’s play slips, then the plan could go back to the original lineup during Week 1).

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