There were many that questioned the San Francisco 49ers when they selected Chris Culliver in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft. After all, he was a converted safety that had played only a handful of games at cornerback, a position that San Francisco planned on playing him at.
It was considered a major reach by draft experts the world over. Cold Hard Football Facts had Culliver ranked 213th overall in their final 2011 big board. Many other draft outlets had the South Carolina product as a fifth-round pick, at best.
Much like former defensive end Bruce Miller, whom San Francisco drafted to play fullback, it knew exactly how Culliver would translate to a relatively new position. He got early playing time as a rookie with the injury to Shawntae Spencer and didn't disappoint.
Consistently improving throughout his rookie season, Culliver quickly earned starter type playing time and became one of the most productive rookie defensive backs of his draft class. In an attempt to gauge his production, I decided to take a look at FF Toolbox and its use of fantasy points as they relate to defensive players. According to that site, Culliver has racked up 37 fantasy points in eight games this season. For the sake of comparison, a player such as Darrelle Revis accumulated 89 fantasy points throughout the duration of the 2011 season.
That's pretty amazing stuff if you ask me. Of course there are definitely factors other than just basic statistics when taking a look at the production of defensive backs in the NFL.
As you can see here, Culliver has absolutely no problem getting into the face of the wide receiver. He is best at the line, in press coverage. This is one of the primary reasons that San Francisco made the decision to utilize Culliver in the slot as a rookie last season. While this does expose him to the hitch routes deep, the young cornerback does a tremendous job recognizing the routes and back peddling in midstream.
He isn't afraid of contact on the outside either, consistently getting into the head of opposing wide receivers. It is that type of "me against the world" personality that defines some of the best players at this position in the NFL. Culliver has that "it" factor.
More importantly, Culliver is great on the ball. He doesn't play the receiver like most young defensive backs do. Instead, the second-year standout makes his push on the pigskin prior to actually attempting to gauge where the receiver is.
This does a couple things. First, it allows him to trust his mechanics in coverage more than other young defensive backs. Second, it denies the receiver separation that he needs in order to make a play on the ball.
Think about it realistically. If you attempt to play the receiver too much as a cover guy you will be caught in less than ideal situations when the ball arrives. It will also lead to pass interference penalties on the outside because you are turned around. On the other hand, if you play the ball too much there is a strong chance that the you will lose grasp of where the receiver is and find him behind you with green field ahead of him.
The best corners in the NFL find a happy medium between these two extremes. Of course Culliver, even as a youngster, has been able to do that.
Here you see Culliver playing press coverage against Hakeem Nicks with Donte Whitner ready to help out over the top. The ability of Culliver to play that type of coverage enables the rest of San Francisco's defensive backs to roam free and improvise in coverage. Defenses with the best cover guys in the NFL are the only ones to have this type of confidence in an individual player.
The simple fact that San Francisco is already in this position with Culliver after only 24 career games is simply amazing. He doesn't struggle handling that responsibility. Instead, it seems the youngster rises up to the challenge.
Do any of you remember his performance against Calvin Johnson last season in just his sixth NFL game? While Johnson did record seven receptions for 113 yards in that game, he was completely shutdown when Culliver was lined up against him. This was an early sign that Culliver was a special player, especially considering how Johnson performed against a Pro Bowler in the form of Carlos Rogers.
Look at Culliver get between the receiver and the ball. The photo below shows him absolutely dominating Jordy Nelson in San Francisco's Week 1 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Culliver also does a great job recognizing his position in the end zone, closing the gap between himself and Michael Floyd while making a play on the ball. This prevented Arizona from scoring a touchdown in that Monday Night Football beatdown in the desert.
This type of performance has been repeated over and over again in Culliver's rather short NFL career. He consistently goes up against top tier wide receivers and gets the best of them. Here is another example against Golden Tate and the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7.
Looking at the Numbers
According to Advanced Football Statistics, Culliver is the 15th best cornerback in the NFL, right behind his teammate Tarell Brown. While that doesn't necessarily mean that he is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, it is important to note that Culliver is still basically the 49ers' nickel guy, which means he isn't on the field in base coverage.
Despite not starting against Arizona in Week 8, Culliver played just five fewer snaps than Carlos Rogers, San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback. He lined up both in the slot and on the outside. By my estimation Culliver allowed just two receptions on nine targets in this game. That type of ratio is definitely Pro Bowl material.
The snap count represents a growing push to make Culliver a starting cornerback in San Francisco's secondary. The issues as it relates to this happening is the fact that it already has the aforementioned Brown and Rogers as the two starters.
It isn't like the 49ers are a second-tier pass defense either. They rank second in both yards and opposing quarterback rating. San Francisco is also tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the fewest touchdown passes given up this season with just six.
For his part, Culliver ranks first on the 49ers in both passes defended and interceptions, two key indicators that he has been their best defensive back this season. While Tarell Brown might have something to say about that, the simple inclusion of these two above Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson, both Pro Bowlers from a season ago, has to be eye opening.
San Francisco has only played half of its 2012 regular season schedule, so it is really hard to draw conclusions about which players deserve to be considered for either the Pro Bowl or All-Pro Team. From what I have seen in terms of Culliver, he has to be considered a top-five cornerback in the NFL thus far this season.
Not to take anything away from Brown, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season himself, I have been more impressed by Culliver than any other 49ers defender this season.
As defensive coordinator Vic Fangio continues to gradually show more confidence in Culliver on the outside as a shutdown type of guy. You will hear his name called a lot more in the coming weeks. This represents a tremendous challenge for the youngster. It also gives him an incredible opportunity to prove supporters like myself right.
The simple fact that San Francisco has started to move Rogers inside in the slot, leaving Culliver in press on the outside should tell us all we need to know about his performance.
Get your fantasy sports fix over at eDraft, where I am Lead Sports Editor and fantasy columnist.