The San Francisco 49ers chose not to extend Donte Whitner or Tarell Brown, even though both have been valuable contributors over the last few seasons.
Now, they're left with two tough decisions to make.
The prevailing theme for the 49ers this offseason is how much money will they need to save up to re-sign Colin Kaepernick. Even if they wait until next year to do so, they still have to be cautious with how they spend their money this offseason.
I'm sure Trent Baalke and Co. would love to have Brown and Whitner back. But at what price? The Niners have five draft picks in the first three rounds of the draft. They could save money by letting the veterans walk and drafting replacements.
Let's take a closer look at San Francisco's offseason options at cornerback and safety.
The 49ers surprised many last year by not taking a cornerback until the seventh round of the NFL draft. Of course, at that time Chris Culliver hadn't torn his ACL. They were planning to go with the trio of Culliver, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers at cornerback.
Losing Culliver threw a wrench into their plans. They ended up promoting Tramaine Brock into the third cornerback role instead of Nnamdi Asomugha. Brock settled in nicely, intercepting four passes in the first nine games of the season.
When Brown got hurt against the New Orleans Saints in November, Brock became a starter. He had been playing so well that the 49ers decided to extend him for four years right after Brown's injury.
Rogers went down during the last regular-season game, allowing Brown to return to a starter's role. For the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Niners used Perrish Cox as their nickel corner. He held his own, but when Rogers was ready to return for the NFC title game, Cox took a back seat.
Rogers got beat deep by Jermaine Kearse on a 4th-and-7 play for a 35-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that gave the Seattle Seahawks their first lead of the game. Aside from that play, the Niners cornerbacks played well in the playoffs.
Once again, they weren't spectacular in the 2013 season. They were steady, just like they were in first two years of the under Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
As you can see from the chart below, Brock was a nice surprise, whereas Rogers struggled:
|2013 Regular-Season CB Rankings|
|Pro Football Focus|
The 49ers traded up to select Eric Reid with the 18th overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft. He did not disappoint.
Reid had 77 tackles and four interceptions. By comparison, Dashon Goldson had 69 tackles and three interceptions in his final season as a 49er.
Reid was surprisingly steady in his rookie season. But what was even more surprising was the resurgence of Donte Whitner. The strong safety had the best season of his career. The 82 tackles and two interceptions were expected, but no one saw coming the 15 passes defensed that Whitner tallied in 2013.
The safeties played great in San Francisco's two playoff wins, but they made a couple of grave mistakes against the Seahawks. First, Reid took a bad angle on Marshawn Lynch's 40-yard touchdown run. Second, Seattle receivers got behind them on the 35-yard touchdown pass to Kearse. Ultimately, it was Rogers' responsibility to knock down that pass, but having deep safety help from the inside is a must.
As the season progressed, the Niners were a bit more susceptible to the deep pass. However, that's not all on the safeties, who overall had a great season.
|2013 Regular-Season Safety Rankings|
|Pro Football Focus|
Whitner played well enough to receive a new contract. But at 28 years old, the Niners have to be wondering if a steep decline is on the horizon for the free agent.
Since Baalke was named director of player personnel in 2008, the 49ers have not used a first- or second-round pick on a cornerback.
He might break that trend this year.
Cornerback seems like a position of need heading into 2014. Rogers is not performing well enough to account for his $8 million cap hit in 2014. He could get cut in the offseason. And Brown is an unrestricted free agent.
Brock and Culliver are the only two cornerbacks who are basically guaranteed to be back next season. Both are promising young players, but neither has proved to be a shutdown corner. The next Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis may be in this year's draft.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and TCU's Jason Verrett in the top 22 of his pre-combine 2014 NFL draft big board. All three have the skills to start immediately for the 49ers.
Or, maybe this is the year the 49ers take a page out of Seattle's draft playbook.
The Seahawks are known to target tall, physical cornerbacks. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste fits the bill. At 6'3", the former Nebraska defensive back is taller than any current 49ers cornerback. He's noticeably slower than Gilbert, but he's also more likely to disrupt a receiver with his press coverage.
As NFL Network's senior analyst Gil Brandt noted, he looks a lot like Sherman.
If the Niners decide to cut Rogers or let Brown walk, they'll likely draft a cornerback early. Even if they keep both, they might take a cornerback just to have another quality option. And you can't have too many reliable defensive backs when defending the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin in your division.
Baalke has been more willing to spend an early pick on a safety than a cornerback. Part of it has been out of necessity.
Going into the 2013 draft, the Niners needed a replacement for Goldson, so they took Reid. In the 2010 offseason, they didn't have a reliable option at strong safety, so they selected Taylor Mays.
What they do in the 2014 draft depends on the status of Whitner. If the Niners give him a long-term contract, they won't bother taking a safety early in the draft. If they let him walk, they'll likely once again look to the first two rounds of the draft for an upgrade.
Washington State's Deone Bucannon is Miller's top-ranked strong safety, but the Niners could also take a free-safety prospect. As the league becomes more pass-happy, the safety position becomes more about ball skills and less about run-stopping.
Though Whitner has many strengths, his weakness is his range. He doesn't run from sideline to sideline to knock down passes.
With, say, Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville's Calvin Pryor, the Niners would have two safeties with above-average range. Considering the 49ers already have the best linebacker corps in the league, they could hit another level on defense with a second blue-chip safety.
Baalke has shown little interest in going after big-name free agents. I expect that trend to continue.
That's not to say he won't sign a free-agent defensive back. But I'd look out for the under-the-radar guys more than the top dogs.
Cornerbacks like Aqib Talib and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie will likely demand expensive contracts. They'll be out of the Niners' price range.
Maybe San Francisco could work out a reasonable deal for Vontae Davis or Alterraun Verner.
Though neither is a very well-known player, both finished in the top 12 of Pro Football Focus' cornerback rankings for the 2013 regular season (subscription required).
My guess is the Niners would rather re-sign Brown than play the free-agency game at cornerback.
As for the safety position, I'm sure the 49ers wouldn't mind having a veteran to play with Reid. However, Reid looked so comfortable in his rookie season that I doubt it's an offseason priority to make sure he's not paired with a rookie safety.
As enticing as throwing the big bucks at Jairus Byrd might be, expect Baalke to either re-sign Whitner or go the young-and-cheap route that is the NFL draft.
My gut feeling is the 49ers will let both Whitner and Brown walk. At any point in the last couple of seasons they could've extended them, but they didn't.
Whitner had a great 2013 season, but the Niners probably see the same things I see: average ball skills and speed. The way Reid responded to Fangio's coaching, the Niners have to feel confident that they can draft a safety to fill in for Whitner.
Brown has to be irked that the Niners re-signed Brock instead of him. Brown was a valuable contributor for nearly six seasons, whereas Brock was valuable only in 2013.
My guess is teams will offer Brown and Whitner more than the 49ers are willing to match. And if Rogers is unwilling to take a big pay cut, he'll be gone too.
If so, the Niners will head into the 2014 draft with at least two big needs, depending on how the 49ers handle the Anquan Boldin free-agency situation.
With three picks in the first two rounds, the Niners can afford to let the veterans defensive backs go. It's up to Baalke and Harbaugh to hit on those picks.
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