San Francisco 49ers: Chris Culliver's Injury and the Cornerback Situation

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San Francisco 49ers: Chris Culliver's Injury and the Cornerback Situation
USA TODAY Sports
The recent injury sustained by San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver places an added burden on the 49ers defense.

The San Francisco 49ers' secondary was not one of its strengths in 2012. 

Looking forward to 2013, that fact may still be the case.

The 49ers carried over all of their top four cornerbacks from the 2012 season: Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.  During the offseason, San Francisco added veteran and former Pro Bowl corner Nnamdi Asomugha to the mix, perhaps to instill some competition at the position and potentially provide an upgrade.

During San Francisco's preseason training camp on August 1, Culliver suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during a non-contact drill which will result in him missing the entire 2013 season. The blow is a significant one for the 49ers' backfield.  San Francisco's cornerbacks, who were overmatched during the team's playoff and Super Bowl run last season, need to be better in 2013. 

With Culliver out, that task will be even more difficult.

As a result, the situation at corner is more precarious entering the upcoming season.  While injuries can often lead to opportunity, there remains the question surrounding which member of the secondary will step up in Culliver's role.  Whatever the case, Culliver's injury has a serious impact on what happens in the 49ers' secondary.

Culliver's injury hurts in a number of ways.  Sure, fans did not see his best side in the playoffs last year.  There are clear memories of him being burned by receivers during the postseason.  His homophobic remarks made in the days before the Super Bowl also put a stain on his young career.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Despite his forgettable 2013 postseason, Culliver has tremendous talent.

The former 2011 third-round draft pick has a ton of upside and tremendous amounts of raw talent.  That talent will certainly be missed in 2013.

CSN Bay Area insider Matt Maiocco describes the impact that Culliver's injury has upon the 49ers.  Maiocco writes:

Culliver's absence will have a great impact on the 49ers, too.  After all, Culliver played 63.2 percent of the snaps last season.  Culliver allowed a completion percentage of just 49.3 and a 76.9 passer rating when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus.  Especially with Culliver's season-ending injury, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown appear to have strong grasps on starting jobs they've held together for the past two seasons.

Deciding who will fill the void left by Culliver will be tough for the 49ers' coaching staff.  Behind starters Brown and Rogers, there is Asomugha, Cox, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Cooper and undrafted free agents Darryl Morris and Lowell Rose.

Let us assume that Brown and Rogers shall remain the starting cornerbacks for San Francisco entering 2013.  After all, that is what the situation was last year leading up to the 49ers' conference championship.  Brown is entering the final season of a five-year, $8.135 million contract and will be a free agent in 2014.  Will a pending contract be grounds for distraction or will the contract year provide added motivation for Brown in his potential final year in San Francisco?

Rogers is a different story.  Still signed through 2015, Rogers may be around for a while unless the 49ers decide to cut him.  Rogers, who posted 52 tackles and six interceptions in 2011 en route to a Pro Bowl selection, fell off in 2012.  Considering his lofty contract, parting ways could be a possibility at some point in the future.  Regardless, San Francisco has relatively few options to replace him at this point.

Then there is Asomugha. 

The 49ers elected to take a chance on the three-time Pro Bowl corner by signing him to a one-year, $1.775 million contract with no guaranteed money.  Asomugha is the epitome of a low-risk, high-reward player for the 49ers. San Francisco is undoubtedly hoping he emulates his playing days with the Oakland Raiders rather than his abysmal tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Nnamdi Asomugha will get more of an opportunity in the wake of Culliver's injury.

Culliver's injury should all but guarantee Asomugha makes the final 53-man roster.  This point is argued by ESPN writer Vince Verhei on his ESPN Insider blog (subscription required).

Yet there are still no guarantees that Asomugha fills that void, let alone stays on the team.

49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been critical of Asomugha as of late and summarized what he has seen from the 32-year-old cornerback during training camp.  Fangio stated via an article by Eric Branch of SF Gate:

He’s had some good days out here and some days where you weren’t sure if he was going to still have it.  I think we’re kind of in between with him right now.  Hopefully he’ll be able to still have some gas left in his tank to go out there and play like he did prior to going to Philadelphia.  So, I think the jury is still out there.

What this means is not totally clear.  Fangio may be trying to instill some motivation in Asomugha who has demonstrated both highs and lows with the 49ers thus far.  Yet Fangio is not typically known for being critical of his players. The statement may be more of concern than motivation.

A recent article published on Yahoo Sports describes his comments further by saying:

The comment was out of character from Fangio, who has rarely made any negative public statements about any of his players, regardless of their performance.  Which begs up the questions: Why now?  Fangio, nor any member of the 49ers staff, would make a statement like that without a clear intent.  Is it to motivate Asomugha?  Perhaps the team's other corners are still fighting for a spot?

Perhaps both elements are true to a certain extent.  Fangio's comments could be taken for what they are and nothing more.  In addition, Fangio could be trying to add some incentive to Asomugha's performance thus far.  He also could be stirring up the competition which is even more heated following Culliver's loss.

As a result, Asomugha's future in San Francisco is yet to be determined.

Then there is the story of the 49ers' recent trade attempt for former-Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Eric Wright.  Wright, who is still dealing with legal issues following a recent DUI in Los Angeles, was traded from Tampa Bay to San Francisco in exchange for a conditional pick.  Yet Wright subsequently failed his physical and the trade was nullified.  Wright was then released by the Buccaneers.

Wright, now a free agent, may still find himself in San Francisco however. 

According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, there is still an outside chance that Wright signs with the 49ers.  Barrows reports that San Francisco is remaining in contact with Wright and the team is currently assessing the free-agent cornerback.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
There is still a chance that Eric Wright lands with the 49ers.

If the 49ers were, and still are, interested in Wright, there has to be some indication that San Francisco is not yet entirely comfortable with their cornerback situation.  Before Culliver's injury, Wright's trade nullification may have been insignificant.  The scenario afterwards is vastly different.

As a result, it makes sense that San Francisco may still be flirting with Wright.  They would enjoy having the services of a cornerback that posted 71 tackles and four interceptions in 2011.  In addition, Wright's legal troubles do not seem to be too significant for the 49ers' top brass.

In the same article written by Barrows, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke highlights this by saying:

I'd ask you guys to do your due diligence as well and find out the facts surrounding [his DUI]. And I think when you did that, that particular incident in and of itself – certainly we were aware of it, certainly it's a red flag.  But I don't think what's being reported is really the facts around it.

 

UPDATE: San Francisco has signed cornerback Eric Wright.  Read more here.

 

What is clear is that San Francisco is still making attempts to tamper with its cornerback situation.  They did so before Culliver's injury and now the process may be even more expedited.  If the 49ers sign Wright, he hopefully will be an integral part of the puzzle.  Whether or not that happens though remains anyone's guess.

While not garnering the same amount of attention that Wright or Asomugha have faced in the wake of Culliver's injury, the remaining members of San Francisco's cornerback corps are also vying for positions on the 49ers depth chart.

Cox and Brock are in a tight battle for one of the final spots on San Francisco's depth chart.  Brock may have the upper hand as he has been filling in as the No. 3 cornerback during recent training camp drills according to Maiocco.

Both Brock and Cox are entering contract years in 2013 and it is reasonable to assume that both are competing not only for a spot on the 53-man roster, but also for a contract in 2014.  Cox, who was once the 49ers dime formation corner, may be bumped by Brock's recent performance. 

Rui Thomas of Golden Gate Sports agrees and predicts that Brock will be ahead of Cox on San Francisco's cornerback depth chart.

There are also the questions surrounding what transpires with the 49ers' rookie class.  Cooper, Morris and Rose are also vying for playing time and a backup job on the 53-man roster.  The most interesting story may center on Cooper, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2013 draft. 

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Marcus Cooper has an outside shot to make San Francisco's 53-man roster.

The 49ers signed Cooper to a four-year, $2.2 million contract and are certainly hoping that he becomes a work-in-progress for the franchise who can contribute in years to come.  While he is certainly not the favorite to earn a starting job, it is not beyond speculation that he may find himself on the field in limited roles during the 2013 season.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation points out Cooper's prospects for making the team this year.  He writes:

One guy who I want to track when next week's preseason opener gets here is Marcus Cooper. He seems pretty far down the depth chart, but strong performances could mix that up real quick. Even with Culliver's injury Cooper seems to have some hurdles to overcome. But he is a guy that should be on our radar.

Cooper indeed may be someone worth watching during the preseason.  Cullivier's injury does provide the opportunity for someone like him to step up his game and earn a closer look from San Francisco's coaching staff.

Regardless of how the aforementioned scenarios pan out, Culliver's injury creates a precarious situation for the 49ers.  The secondary was a weak spot in San Francisco's defense last season and the loss of Culliver certainly does not make it any stronger.

Whether or not the 49ers elect to bring in outside help, like the potential addition of Wright, or decide to roll with what they have is yet to be determined.  In any case, the cornerback situation will remain a crucial focus of the 49ers moving forward.

Hopefully that focus will yield more positives than negatives as San Francisco heads toward the preseason in 2013.

 

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.

 

Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

 

 

 

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