Chris Culliver

49ers training camp battles to watch: cornerback

Jim Harbaugh Dontae Johnson 49ers

Too early? NEVER!

OK, you might have a point. Training camp doesn’t start for a few weeks. But the Giants are playing some of their worst baseball since last year around this time. The A’s? Sure, they’re outstanding, but (1) we have an A’s writer, (2) A’s stories don’t exactly draw a ton of eyeballs and (3) the A’s are the only team in the region that won’t credential me.

Mostly, I already miss football season. And the 2014 campaign should be a doozy, with Levi’s Stadium opening, the Seattle Seahawks attempting to defend their title (which will bring about a host of problems they haven’t had to deal with yet since Pete Carroll took over), and the 49ers bringing back close to the same cast of characters in hopes of not just earning a spot in the NFC Championship for a fourth straight season, but … you know, that other thing.

I’ve already seen a half dozen analysts describe the 49ers’ roster as the deepest in the game. While that’s an interesting debate, I wanted to go through some of the areas where that depth could lead to some spirited competition during training camp. Training camp is a fun time of year that I’m looking forward to (can you tell?), because until the second preseason game we’re actually allowed to watch practices and report on what we see.

Last year it was pretty clear based on those first two weeks of practices that the 49ers had a couple good young cornerbacks in Marcus Cooper and Darryl Morris. However, even after losing Chris Culliver to a torn ACL, the 49ers had a lot more veteran depth at the position. There wasn’t room for Cooper or Morris (or so the 49ers thought at the time), because of guys like Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha (the Week 1 starters), along with Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock.

Asomugha and Cox would end up getting cut, and Brock took advantage to the point where he became the No. 1 corner and got a lucrative extension before the season was two-thirds over.

Cox is back, but Brown and Rogers are now Raiders. It’s not often that a team’s top three corners to start one season are gone the next, but that’s the bed the 49ers made. As a result, there are a lot of questions about this unit, probably more than any other group on the team.

The starters: Brock, Culliver, Jimmie Ward (1st round)

The 49ers didn’t select Ward in the first round to watch from the sidelines, or to play safety. At least not this year. Ward will be the nickel/slot guy, with Brock and Culliver manning the outside spots.

The depth: Morris, Chris Cook (FA), Cox, Dontae Johnson (4th round – watched by Jim Harbaugh in the photo above), Keith Reaser (5th round), Kenneth Acker (6th round),

Morris’ speed made him a valuable weapon in kick coverage after breaking onto the 53-man roster from the practice squad midway through his rookie season.

Cook is a reclamation project — a guy with all the physical tools who put up some terrible coverage numbers (according to Pro Football Focus, Cook gave up nine touchdowns and quarterbacks had a rating over 140 when targeting him last year).

As for the non-Ward rookies, Johnson is really tall and rangy for a corner, Reaser is a redshirt guy (ACL), and Acker could end up on a roster with a strong camp and preseason — the question: would it be the 49ers’ roster?

A new era

What’s worrisome about this group is the unknown, but the 49ers don’t seem too concerned for a couple of reasons.

1. After Eric Wright retired, the 49ers filled his roster spot with an offensive lineman (Al Netter).

2. They had former Chiefs No. 1 corner Brandon Flowers in for a workout, but Flowers ended up signing a one-year deal with the Chargers.

The 49ers have decided to go young and trust defensive backs coach Ed Donatell, much like the 1981 49ers did with a trio of young defensive backs they took in the first three rounds (Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson) and then-defensive backs coach George Seifert.

The oldest defensive backs on the ’81 roster were 25 (Dwight Hicks and Saladin Martin). In researching this piece, I found out that Rick Gervais played safety on that team. No, not THAT Rick Gervais.

This isn’t exactly the same situation. Lott is probably the best 49ers defensive player of all time, for starters. But the current brain trust clearly decided the best course of action is to count on youthful competition instead of veteran familiarity.

Wright surprised everyone with his decision to call it quits. He may not have wanted to move inside and cover slot guys. Perhaps he was simply tired of football. But I’m starting to wonder whether Wright looked around at the other corners he would’ve competed against and realized he simply wasn’t as hungry or talented.

What to expect

With so little set in stone at this position, August is going to tell us a lot. Morris and Cook looked pretty good during the first sets of offseason workouts. Johnson is probably guaranteed a roster spot due to his draft position. Cox was released by the 49ers and Seahawks last season, but jumped ahead of Wright going into the playoffs after his return. Cox can also return punts in a pinch, although the 49ers probably want to find a more scintillating option to back up or replace LaMichael James.

If anyone listed on that “depth” section goes off and collects a ton of interceptions and pass deflections during practices and preseason games, there’s a chance the starting group looks different. Ward hasn’t practiced yet to surgery on his foot (stress fracture) in March, and the 49ers still need to see how Culliver looks in game action.

With Aldon Smith possibly missing at least a couple weeks to start the year due to an NFL-imposed suspension, the secondary might not have the luxury of playing behind an elite pass rush. That, and the lack of depth chart certainty, make this perhaps THE group to watch during training camp. Unless Cook and Cox really impress, the 49ers could go with Brock, Culliver, Ward, Morris and Johnson, with Acker making the practice squad if another team doesn’t claim him. However, Cook and Cox are only 27. So regardless of who makes the squad, this might be the team’s youngest set of corners since the year they won their first Super Bowl.

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