Yesterday, we looked at the top remaining free-agent wide receivers. Now, let’s flip to the defensive side of the ball and look at what targets might be remaining at cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers have actually been a little more active in the cornerback market then they have been at receiver. They signed Chris Cook to a one-year deal, on a league minimum contract with zero guaranteed money. That gives them some depth, but Cook’s no better than the third or fourth corner on the team. He’ll battle Eric Wright for a spot on the depth chart.
The team has looked around at other options this offseason. They were rumored to be interested in Nolan Carroll before he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, and they had Walter Thurmond in for a visit before he signed with the New York Giants.
The team is comfortable with Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock as their starters, according to CSN's Matt Maiocco, and they may simply add to the position in the draft. However, the team does sit about $3.7 million under the salary cap, per Maiocco, with another $6.6 million coming in June once Carlos Rogers’s contract officially comes off the book. They have the room to add one more player if they so desired.
With that in mind, here are some of the cornerback free agents still sitting on the market that might squeeze into San Francisco’s price range.
Pro Football Reference
Wilson was let go by Washington, despite starting all 16 games across from DeAngelo Hall. It’s not his starting experience that would be valuable to San Francisco, though, as he wouldn’t beat out Culliver or Brock. What is notable is his experience in the slot.
Wilson regularly moved into the slot when opposing teams went to nickel packages, ending up with 355 snaps in coverage. Wilson’s greatest strength is keeping the play in front of him and not getting burned. Only twice last season did Wilson give up a play of over 30 yards. Giving up 12.6 yards per completion, Wilson was squarely average, league-wide, with better numbers than the man he’d be replacing, Carlos Rogers.
Of course, the reason he’s still out there is the fact that, last season, Wilson simply couldn’t stop anyone from catching the ball. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) charted him as having allowed 64 receptions on only 85 targets. The 75.3 percent of passes caught against him was the seventh-worst total in football last season.
It’s also an outlier. Wilson allowed 57.1 percent of passes to be caught in 2012 and only 50.0 percent in 2011. Coming off of a poor season like that will depress his price, but it’s also not necessarily indicative of how good he’ll be coming forward. On a deal with no guaranteed money—the type Cook was signed to—he might be worth looking at in training camp.
Pro Football Reference
Samuel has fallen quite a bit from his Pro Bowl days with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, from 2007-2010. Part of his drop-off can be linked to injuries. Samuel suffered a thigh injury in preseason last year, and he never quite fully recovered. By the end of the season, he was replaced in the starting lineup.
Samuel would be a gamble, so he’d also only be worth a one-year, “prove-it” style contract. He just turned 33, and cornerbacks are usually well into the decline phase at that point in their career.
However, it was just last season that Samuel managed five interceptions. For all his struggles with injury last season, Samuel still showed he had the know-how and experience to play the position; he was only flagged one time all season. If he can bounce back in a reserve role, giving more time for his body to heal up, he could still be a solid contributor.
In 2012, Samuel allowed opposing quarterbacks to put up only a 66.1 quarterback rating, per PFF. That talent is still there; the question is only whether his body can hold up to another full NFL season.
Of course, there is the issue of Samuel not being a slot corner. He only had 11 snaps in the slot last season. It would be a bit of a transition this late in his career, but I have no doubts he could make the mental adjustments. It’s just a matter of his physicality.
Pro Football Reference
If we’re talking about aging cornerbacks, though, why stick with Samuel? Why not go for a likely Hall of Famer like Champ Bailey?
Bailey struggled through 2013 with age and injuries. He only managed three starts last season, thanks to a very serious foot sprain, and he was clearly not at full strength when he was on the field. He came back for the playoffs and had a very promising game against New England before washing out in the Super Bowl along with the rest of his teammates.
Yes, at age 36, there are doubts as to whether Bailey can ever be as good as he once was. It’s important to note, however, that unlike Samuel, Bailey hasn’t been trending downwards over time. He was a Pro Bowler in all but one season from 2000 up through 2012. Some of that was based on reputation, sure, but he’s still shown an ability to play at a decently high level.
In 2012, Bailey forced an opposing quarterback rating of only 67.3, eleventh best in the league. He was Pro Football Focus’ tenth-highest rated cornerback, grading out positively in both pass coverage and run defense. His speed is a thing of the past at this point, but when healthy, he still has gas left in the tank.
He’s shown a willingness to fit in where a team needs him, indicated by his openness to moving to safety. The 49ers wouldn’t need him there, but it does imply a willingness to be used in a role different than that he’s been used to.
The move would make sense for Bailey. As a reserve/nickel corner, he’d have more time to rest his body and get the most out of what is left in the tank. Additionally, with the 49ers, Bailey would have one of the best shots of securing that elusive Super Bowl ring.
The move would make sense for the 49ers, too. While they may be comfortable with Culliver and Brock, they don’t even have a full season’s worth of starting experience between them. Bringing in a vet like Bailey to mentor and provide experience in the secondary could be a boon for all concerned.
If you were the 49ers, who would you sign?
With the salary cap space limited, it’s far from a sure thing the 49ers would bring anyone in, even on a one-year deal. If they do, however, I think Champ Bailey would make an excellent addition to the team.