Arguably the best cover corner in the league during his first eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders, his move to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011—along with the revival of quarterback Michael Vick—signaled the rise of the Eagles’ empire as the new superpower in the league.
Then, the season started. The Asomugha that Philadelphia fans expected didn’t look like the same player that the Eagles had deemed worthy of awarding a $60 million contract, $25 million of which was guaranteed.
In Oakland, he was heralded as the man that quarterbacks did not dare to challenge. Balls thrown his way were either swatted away harmlessly or stopped for limited damage. He was Deion Sanders reincarnated.
Once he came to Philadelphia, however, Asomugha wasn’t just getting challenged, he was getting beaten—not only beaten badly, but consistently as well.
Some thought he had lost a step, others claimed that he simply didn’t have the same instincts he once possessed. Ultimately, however, the brunt of the criticism came on newly christened defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, a man who inexplicably was promoted from offensive line coach to his new prestigious position.
Despite possessing the best cover corner in the league, Castillo decided to implement a zone scheme, which did not utilize the extraordinary skills that Asomugha possessed.
As baffling as the move was at the time, the longer Asomugha played, the more it began to make sense.
The thing about Asomugha was that he never had astonishing speed. His 4.45 40-time at the NFL combine, while good, was average at best for an NFL cornerback. Factor in age and wear and tear, and that average speed was probably a few notches below average.
There's no doubt Castillo saw that and attempted to hide Asomogha's eroding skills. In the few instances where the Eagles did play man-to-man coverage, Asomugha would be consistently beaten, as his lack of elite speed combined with his diminishing ability to bump receivers off the line led to big plays for opponents.
What, then, does this mean for the San Francisco 49ers, which picked Asomugha off the free-agent market to help bolster the weakest part of their otherwise phenomenal defense?
Barring an unlikely career renaissance, Asomugha's move back to the Bay area probably does not mean a lot. It’s a sad reality, but the guy who once stood at the top of the cornerback food chain now probably will be fortunate to just be an average cornerback at this stage of his career.
Unfortunately for Asomugha, there are a few factors not working in his favor. The first one, obviously, is the precipitous decline of his skills, although that could be hidden with some reliable help.
As good as the 49ers' front seven are, the play of the San Francisco secondary left a lot to be desired last season, and that was even with the recently departed Dashon Goldson. This year, the Pro Bowl safety will be replaced with rookie Eric Reid, who will need to deal with the steep learning curve that the NFL brings.
Equally disturbing are the diminishing returns of both Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers, the two other main components of the 49ers' secondary. While both posted phenomenal seasons in the 2011 campaign, their weaknesses were exposed in the 2012 season, weaknesses that proved to be the chink in the 49ers’ otherwise strong defense.
That’s not exactly the ideal situation Asomugha would have hoped for from his standpoint. To be sure, the strong play of the front seven will help limit his exposure. This is the NFL, though, and in the NFL, other teams generally find ways to attack the weak links.
Nobody, including 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, knows what to expect from Asomugha this season, according to NBC Bay Area.com:
I do think he’s a good fit as a guy and a person. He’s been a tremendous guy here. He’s learning. He’s been a real pro. Remains to be seen how well he can cover. Guys got to be able to cover at the corner position. But I do think our style of play does potentially fit his style where he’s at in his career right now.
So, hopefully he can make a strong contribution to us. But that’s yet to be determined.
Will Nnamdi Asomugha improve his play?
Expectations for Asomugha are tempered with his team, as they should be. Those expecting him to be the same guy he was with the team across the bay could be in for a rude awakening.
Asomugha is not the player he once was, and he will most likely never be that again. He isn’t done, however, and probably will not be as bad as he was with the Eagles.
If anything, the leadership and calming veteran presence he will bring to the estranged 49ers' secondary will be a plus in itself.
With the season now on the horizon, we won’t have to wait long to see what exactly the 49ers have in him.
We do, however, know what they don’t have—a shutdown corner. Fortunately, it appears that both Asomugha and the 49ers know that as well.