San Francisco 49ers: Why Chris Culliver Can Be Niners Future No. 1 Corner

Brandon Burnett@B_Burnett49Contributor IIIApril 5, 2012

San Francisco 49ers: Why Chris Culliver Can Be Niners Future No. 1 Corner

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    Not even a year ago, nearly all the NFL draft pundits in existence were scratching their heads after the 49ers third-round selection was announced.

    Chris Culliver? In the third round?

    Not only was the selection of Culliver widely regarded as a reach, but some even said he would've likely remained on the board as late as the sixth or seventh round. 

    Seemingly more baffling than the pick itself—was the question of where Trent Baalke and Co. even planned to use him in the NFL. 

    The 6'0", 199-pound South Carolina product spent three seasons at the safety position before eventually starting five games at corner his senior year. He also graduated as the school's all-time leader in return yards after returning 106 kickoffs for 2,476 yards—which both rank third in SEC history. 

    Despite Culliver being labeled as a "project" for the 49ers and someone who would require multiple seasons in the NFL to develop into a starter, "Cully" flourished throughout his rookie campaign in red and gold.

    He made some mistakes as well, but clearly outperformed expectations. And did so despite the lockout-shortened offseason attempting to hinder Culliver's progress.

    Heading into his sophomore season, Culliver should be ready to take over the starting cornerback slot opposite Carlos Rogers. Of course, Rogers is currently entrenched as the No. 1 CB on the depth chart, but the seven-year veteran will be 31 this summer, and unless you're Darrell Green—you aren't going to play in the secondary at a Pro Bowl level forever.

    The next few slides will highlight why I believe Culliver is a star in the making and has the potential to become one of the best defensive backs the 49ers franchise has ever seen.

He Has the Tools to Be Elite

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    Culliver has both the size (6', 199 lbs.) and the speed (4.40 40-yard dash at the NFL combine) that NFL scouts drool over.

    To help you understand just how fast his 40-time was, it ranked third among all defensive backs at the 2011 combine, and eighth among the entire field of prospects. Julio Jones, the blazing fast WR which the Falcons traded up to take eighth overall in the 2011 draft, ran a 40-time of 4.38—just a hair faster than Culliver.

    Impressive, right?

    He also recorded a 38.5" vertical jump, which was second-best among the combine's defensive backs. 

    Culliver was praised not only for his athletic frame and impressive skill set, but noted for his ability to understand both man and zone concepts as well as his versatility in the secondary.

    The knocks on Culliver included:

    • Often takes poor angles
    • High, choppy backpedal
    • Lacks adequate experience (recruited as a wide receiver)
    • Sometimes gets caught peeking into backfield

    Okay, the lack of experience is an acceptable reasoning for his draft stock to suffer. And Culliver did have a history of injuries in college. His senior season was cut short due to a torn pectoral muscle.

    But the other concerns are clearly coachable, and therefore correctable.

    Which leads us to the next slide...

The Ed Donatell Factor

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    While there's no doubt defensive coordinator Vic Fangio played a significant role in bringing the 49ers defense to their elite status—Donatell is the man behind the secondary's impressive turnaround.

    Donatell has over 30 years of coaching experience in both the collegiate ranks and the NFL. He's coached up some of the league's finest talents, including Ty Law, Brian Dawkins, Lawyer Milloy and Darren Sharper. 

    Oh, and one other former player you may know. Perhaps the most-feared 49er defender of all time—Ronnie Lott.

    Needless to say, when the selection of Culliver was made—Trent Baalke and Co. knew they'd be leaving him in good hands.

    And when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were searching for a replacement at defensive coordinator (Donatell had previously been a DC for the Packers and Broncos), the 49ers denied their request to interview Donatell.

    The 49er faithful should be thankful that they did.

    Culliver will now have a full offseason to digest Fangio's complex defense. Couple that with ample time for Donatell to refine his skills, and Culliver's big-play ability should come to the forefront in 2012.

    Speaking of Culliver's ability to make plays...

He Has Huge Big-Play Ability

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    If you weren't aware Culliver had big-play ability before the opening slide, here's some visual evidence for your entertainment.

    Take a look at the two amazing returns Culliver ripped off in his junior season against Kentucky. Especially the second run-back, which begins at the :46 second mark.

    Also take note of his teammates whiffing on basically every block attempted during that return. Culliver still managed to drag the play out for a whopping 16 seconds, gaining 49 yards in the process. 

    I'm already visualizing "Cullyinthehouse" taking a few interceptions back to the house in the coming seasons.

He Can Hang with the NFL's Best

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    As early as Week 4, Culliver found himself earning some serious playing time in the 49ers nickel package. 

    In Week 5, he recorded his first career interception in a 48-3 blowout of the same Buccaneers squad that would eventually request an interview with Culliver's DB coach.

    A week later, he found himself lined up against the NFL's top wideout, otherwise known as "Megatron."

    Although the 6'5", 236-pound Calvin Johnson still put up impressive numbers (7 receptions, 113 yards) in the game, it was a rather pedestrian performance for his standards. Especially considering Johnson had recorded nine touchdowns in his first five games of the season, yet failed to reach the end zone once against San Fran.

    Culliver wasn't covering Johnson the entire game, but was confident and aggressive when he was. 

    And why wouldn't he be? Culliver spent his days in the SEC covering big-name receivers like Julio Jones and A.J. Green. 

    While he did struggle at times against lesser-talented wideouts in 2011, it's a comforting feeling knowing that Culliver can hang with the league's best without backing down.

In Closing

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    Barring a setback in progress, Culliver will be the Niners' No. 2 CB in 2012.

    As he grows comfortable in Fangio's schemes and fully adjusts to life as a corner in the NFL, Culliver's natural instincts and impressive big-play abilities should start to expose themselves on a regular basis.

    He's surrounded by an elite defense and experienced coaching with only one goal in mind: improving each and every day.

    With that mindset, the sky is the limit for Culliver and his NFL career. Maybe one day we'll see him join the ranks of noteworthy defensive backs that Donatell has coached throughout his career.

    Regardless of what happens from here, nobody is calling the 49ers' selection of Culliver a "reach" anymore. 

     

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