With two regular-season games left to play, the San Francisco 49ers are on the verge of their third playoff appearance in as many years. Some would argue that the Niners haven’t looked as dominant as they have looked in years past, yet cornerback Tramaine Brock and the rest of the defensive secondary may have something to say about that.
Despite being marred by injuries on both sides of the ball and the team’s offensive struggles at particular points throughout the season, there is one unit that has exceeded expectations on a weekly basis. And that unit is the 49ers’ defensive backfield.
Yes, it’s hard to believe based on the secondary's inconsistent play early on in the season, but Ed Donatell’s group really turned the corner against the St. Louis Rams, Week 4. After a string of embarrassing performances to start the season, Donatell and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio knew something had to be done about the lackluster showings.
Whether it was making lineup changes or altering their approach, both Donatell and Fangio were willing to exhaust every resource in order to get the problem fixed. Coincidentally enough, neither coach had to make a drastic change. The solution to their problem fell right into their lap when veteran cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha suffered a knee injury.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the 49ers defense has garnered a plus-38.2 coverage grade since Asomugha’s injury. There’s no question that it took a group effort to get things turned around, but Brock should be showered with praise for the job he has done over the course of the last 11 games.
He has been absolutely lights out.
Heading into Week 16, Brock has played well enough to amass a plus-11.2 coverage grade from the folks at PFF. In addition to his outstanding coverage grade, he is viewed as the best cover corner in the NFL. In 532 snaps, he has 28 total tackles, 12 passes defended and four interceptions.
However, Brock isn’t the only player who deserves recognition. Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner and journeyman cornerback Eric Wright deserve their fair share of credit as well. Both players have bounced back admirably from subpar seasons in 2012.
Whitner is PFF’s second-best coverage safety through 14 games, and Wright has held opposing quarterbacks to a 57.1 quarterback rating when they throw into his coverage area. Kudos to head coach Jim Harbaugh, Donatell and Fangio for adjusting on the fly and turning a negative into a positive.
Even though San Francisco’s secondary has one of the top coverage grades in the NFL, the future of the team’s defensive backfield is clouded with uncertainty. Why? Because Whitner, Wright and Tarell Brown are all scheduled for free agency during the offseason.
|List of 2014 Free Agents in the Secondary|
|Player||POS||Status||Age||2013 Cap Hit|
When you remove those three players from the 53-man roster, the depth on the back end of the defense takes a huge hit. Not to mention, all signs point to the 49ers getting rid of left cornerback Carlos Rogers as well. Rogers played well in 2011 and 2012, but he has been downright awful in 2013.
All of the uneasiness in the secondary has led me to one question: What will the Niners’ secondary look like in 2014? Obviously a lot can change from now until March, yet you have to think plenty of offseason changes will occur.
San Francisco’s salary-cap situation is tight at the moment, which means general manager Trent Baalke won’t have the necessary funds to re-sign every impending free agent.
Whitner is someone who has earned a fat contract based on his high level of play, but the 49ers won’t overpay for a player who turns 29 in July. If we analyze the average salaries of the five highest-paid safeties in the NFL, Troy Polamalu, Eric Berry, Dashon Goldson, Eric Weddle and Antrel Rolle all make $7 million or more annually.
|The 5 Highest Paid Safeties in the NFL Based on Average Salary|
|Troy Polamalu||Pittsburgh Steelers||SS||$9,125,000|
|Eric Berry||Kansas City Chiefs||SS||$8,340,717|
|Dashon Goldson||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||FS||$8,250,000|
|Eric Weddle||San Diego Chargers||FS||$8,000,000|
|Antrel Rolle||New York Giants||SS||$7,400,000|
Is a 29-year-old strong safety worth $7 million, or can the organization select a younger, more cap friendly player in the draft? That’s the million-dollar question.
Even though it’s not up to him, Harbaugh has hinted his stance on Whitner’s future with the 49ers in the past. Here’s what San Francisco’s head coach told reporters back in July, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Master of the obvious, but he is 28 years old, he’s done a lot. Who do I respect more than Donte Whitner? No-body. He’s right up there at the very top. He’s one of the best athletes at his position in his sport and I expect great things from Donte this year.
As far as Brown and Wright go, Harbaugh hasn’t hinted his stance. Yet, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want both players back in 2014.
Brown’s injury troubles in 2013 helped bring his value back down to earth, while Wright will probably be awarded with a two-year prove-it deal if he is re-signed. The prove-it deal would be an incentive-laden deal with very little guaranteed money. That’s a good thing considering his age and inconsistent play from year-to-year.
As I mentioned above, the 49ers haven’t tipped their hand in regard to Brown and Wright, so I polled Ryan Riddle of Bleacher Report and Vincent Frank of Yahoo! Sports to get a better understanding of the situation.
Riddle trusts that the 49ers will bring Brown back, but he’s not so sure about Wright. He said Wright’s situation will depend on how effective he is from now until the end of the season.
In terms of Frank, he thinks it’s highly likely that San Francisco brings Brown back. He also said the front office staff likes Wright a lot.
This, in turn, leads me to believe that two of the three defensive backs scheduled for free agency will return in 2014. Odds are Brown and Wright will be the two players re-signed, while Whitner moves on. At the end of the day, the Niners don’t have enough cap space to overpay for an aging safety.
Furthermore, this could end up being a blessing in disguise. Baalke has a keen eye for talent, he drafts well and makes cost-effective decisions. There’s a reason 49ers fans often say, ”In Baalke we trust!”
Regardless of how the offseason plays out, you can bet your bottom dollar that San Francisco's secondary will be one of the best secondaries in the NFL in 2014. It's like clockwork; it happens every year.