San Francisco 49ers: Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Cornerback
The San Francisco 49ers had relatively few problems to solve when the team entered into the 2014 offseason.
One of them was upgrading the cornerback position.
After falling short of their Super Bowl dreams last year, the 49ers had some tough choices to make when it came to addressing the needs in their secondary—considerably the weakest point in what otherwise should be classified as an elite defense.
Veteran cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers were let go, primarily due to contractual obligations.
The team also reinforced the position via free agency—adding former Minnesota Vikings corner Chris Cook.
Then came the 2014 NFL draft. Speculation should have indicated the 49ers would have used one of their high draft picks to select a corner.
Essentially they did this—drafting defensive back Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois with their first pick in Round 1.
The team also added complementary corners Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser later in the draft.
Combine these additions with returning veterans like Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, and suddenly San Francisco's defensive backfield has the opportunity to be one of the strong points on the 49ers defense this season.
For starters, there is unquestioned depth. Sure, many of the players listed at the position will not make the final 53-man roster at Week 1. There will be plenty of competition in the weeks leading up to the regular season.
Competition is always a good thing.
In this slideshow, we shall take a detailed look at the 49ers' cornerback position, evaluating each player on the roster and providing a detailed analysis and prediction as to where he will fit in to San Francisco's season plans.
Which players earn which jobs? Who will be the Nos. 1 and 2 starters? Where will the primary competition land?
Let's try to answer each of these questions.
Before we break down each player, let us take a look at the total depth chart San Francisco has at cornerback.
As stated, the 49ers made a considerable effort this offseason to bulk up this position in an attempt to help thwart the pass-happy offenses becoming evermore prevalent in today's NFL.
While establishing good pressure up front is essential to limiting the passing game, a secondary that is capable of shutting down opponents' receivers is just as critical.
The 2014 season will be the true test as to how San Francisco fared in addressing this need.
It is reasonable to assume the 49ers will hold onto six cornerbacks on the 53-man roster. The first four—Brock, Culliver, Cook and Ward—make sense when it comes to being active. Johnson, a 2014 fourth-round pick, is promising enough to get the nod as San Francisco's No. 5 corner.
Darryl Morris offers plenty on special teams, so it is also reasonable to see him on the roster at this point.
Another noteworthy mention is the announced retirement of veteran corner Eric Wright—an aspect he contemplated when he decided not to show up for mandatory minicamp per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
This opens up more opportunity for the remaining cast of corners in regards to making the team. Wright may have been on the bubble for making the roster, but now we can rule him out of the equation entirely.
The rest—for reasons we will explore—will likely not make the team in Week 1.
According to Taylor Price of 49ers.com, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said, "I feel good about the guys who are here."
For the most recently released depth chart, check out CBS Sports' 49ers listing.
Author's Note: Above players listed in bold are predicted to make the final 53-man roster.
Keith Reaser (PUP)
In short, he will not play—recovering from a second ACL surgery in February, according to CSN Bay Area's Mindi Bach.
This is an approach San Francisco has taken in the past, and it has no reservations about doing so again. The team has shown comfort in drafting injured players and redshirting them for their rookie seasons.
Reaser is one such example.
So what of his attributes? Reaser stands at 5'10" and 189 pounds, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, and has sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash.
Another promising attribute is his strength.
According to Taylor Price of 49ers.com, Reaser put up 22 reps on the 225-pound bench press—tied for most among cornerbacks at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Having strong, physical cornerbacks is a good thing to put it lightly. Reaser fits this mold.
He will spend his rookie season learning the defense and picking the brains of those around him. Working on his rehabilitation will also be a top priority in 2014.
The 49ers took no shortcuts when it came to beefing up the secondary during the 2014 NFL draft.
One such acquisition was Southern Methodist cornerback Kenneth Acker, whom San Francisco selected in Round 6.
Acker is 6'0", 195 pounds and posted three interceptions and 13 passes defended during his senior year.
As a sixth-round pick, Acker will have to overcome a lot to make his way onto San Francisco's 53-man roster in 2014. The safe bet would probably be to list him on the practice squad this upcoming season.
But Acker is making a strong case to be considered for a regular role.
Of the interaction, Acker had this to say about his development, via Price:
I just see the comfort level rising with everybody, the comfort of being in a new system and the comfort of being around everybody. Every day, I just try to get better and I feel like I’ve been improving a lot. Every day I take it as a competition. Everybody can play. Everybody is good here. Everybody by you is working just as hard, so you have to up your game every day.
We will continue to monitor his development as it will assuredly have substantial impact as to whether or not Acker makes the final cut.
Further adding to his credentials is the fact that Acker has experience returning punts—an aspect described further by David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
While this certainly improves Acker's stock, we shall see whether or not it is the final chip in determining his role in 2014.
The best bet, however, is that Acker finds himself on the practice squad for his rookie season—potentially the first to be called up if one of the more established corners goes down with an injury.
One of the numerous defensive backs on the bubble to make the 49ers roster in 2014 is Perrish Cox.
This sort of dilemma is nothing new to Cox. Last season, he started out with the 49ers, was subsequently released and then was re-signed toward the end of the season.
Then San Francisco decided not to tender him a contract as a restricted free agent, electing to sign him later as a free agent to a one-year deal per Darin Gantt of NBC Sports.
Cox played in nine games for the 49ers last season—logging six tackles and two passes defended as a depth player in San Francisco's secondary.
But heading into the 2014 season, Cox was in for a much more heated competition for playing time.
It is hard to assume that Cox will ever thwart players like Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver for the top two cornerback slots. Cox could, in theory, make his way into the primary nickelback role at the start of the season.
This would mean the 49ers' first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward would be slow in transitioning to the NFL—an aspect we will explore later.
It would also mean that he would have to overcome players like rookie Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker, as well as the veteran Chris Cook.
Of course all of this is possible, but it is safe to say Cox has a long hill to climb.
True, the 49ers do love veteran presence on the field. Cox brings that along with his experience in Fangio's defense. His contributions on special teams also warrant consideration.
But as David Fucillo of Niners Nation writes:
[We] kind of know what Cox brings to the table as a cornerback. He's handling first team slot corner duties in OTAs, but that is in part because Ward is still trying to get his foot healthy. Cox might open camp as the slot corner, but the odds are pretty good that he could be surpassed on the depth chart at some point.
Fucillo also points out that Cox could be in danger of being released if Ward and Darryl Morris show enough promise leading up to the start of the regular season.
On a positive note, Cox is handling the primary slot corner position thus far during training camp per Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.
This at least reveals to us that the 49ers coaching staff has faith in his abilities and would like to see what Cox brings to the table. At best, he secures that role for the start of the season.
But it is still a lot to ask for a player perpetually on the bubble. Barring any sort of dynamic performances during the preseason, this author feels Cox will eventually wind up being released.
One player who may possibly thwart Perrish Cox's chances of cracking the 53-man roster is second-year defensive back Darryl Morris.
A rookie in 2013, Morris saw the field primarily on special teams—appearing in a total of 13 games and logging five tackles during the process.
At this point, signs have pointed to San Francisco's coaching staff having a little more faith in Cox over Morris—giving Cox more reps as the team's primary nickel corner, per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
Of course, this does not mean Morris should be ruled out of the equation entirely.
For starters, Morris' contributions on special teams are alone worthwhile, and it is safe to assume he retains a roster spot based on that.
Additionally, the 49ers have touted Morris for a while, per Vincent Frank of Fox Sports: "As it relates to the 49ers, they have been high on Darryl Morris for a long time now and continue to view him as starter-caliber. FYI."
Perhaps this is the edge Morris needs to eventually find his way into the slot duties—an aspect he hopes for.
Morris relayed this via Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com:
A lot of comes from experience and reps, but it's coming along. Every day, I seem to get a little bit better at recognizing things faster, which helps me play faster. The nickel, being closer, inside, you're around the ball a whole lot more. You get to be a part of the blitz, make more tackles and a chance to make more plays. That's where I want to be.
For this to happen, Morris will have to climb over Cox and the flurry of other cornerbacks vying for a similar role.
All of this is dependent on how Morris looks during the preseason and upon evaluation of his training camp performances.
While the 49ers obviously want to get the most out of Morris, this author still has a tough time seeing him surpassing other corners like rookies Dontae Johnson, Jimmie Ward and Chris Cook.
San Francisco will keep him around as a depth option and as a member of special teams starting in Week 1.
If the 49ers are buying into the idea that large, physical cornerbacks are the new way to defend NFL secondaries, the team echoed so by drafting NC State's Dontae Johnson in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft.
At 6'2" and 195 pounds, Johnson has the physical tools to live up to the accolade. He is even trying to model his game after some of the other large corners like Champ Bailey and Richard Sherman, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
Obviously, Johnson has a long way to go if he ever hopes to live up to the presence and accolades awarded to players like Sherman. But the comparison is worth noting and is further described by Ronnie Hampston of Rant Sports, who writes:
The comparison of San Francisco 49ers rookie Dontae Johnson and Richard Sherman is unfair at this point, but when looking at the two as rookies it makes sense in a way. The scouting report on Johnson and Sherman entering the NFL is very similar. Most reports noted that both players had great size, adequate speed and they could possibly be contributors at the cornerback position. Nothing about the pros mentioned arm length, height and intangibles, and the cons noted that they lack top end speed to compete with upper echelon wide receivers and lose focus, which results in mediocre ball skills.
So both players had similar scouting reports upon entry into the NFL. That doesn't necessarily translate over into success, right?
If the 49ers have their way, Johnson will eventually fill two needs in the backfield. As Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area points out, San Francisco was attracted to Johnson's combination of size and speed—noting that a lot of the second-tier defensive backs in the draft lacked one of the two.
All of these aspects are merely physical traits. Johnson still has to show that he is capable of translating his collegiate success over to the NFL level.
This process will have some invariable bumps, some of which have been pointed out during training camp via Grant Cohn of The Press Democrat.
Of course, the transition from a collegiate to NFL defensive back is a tough one. Rookies rarely make the switch without the occasional gaffe or hiccup.
Johnson is no exception.
So with all this in mind, where does Johnson wind up at the start of the 2014 season?
At best, we could possibly see Johnson competing for a dime corner position in his rookie season. He is a lock to make the team but is best suited for a reserve/depth corner role at this point.
Still, that is not a bad place to start, and hopefully the 49ers' investment is one that pays off in coming years.
Technically, the 49ers' first-round draft pick in the 2014 NFL draft is not listed as a cornerback. Jimmie Ward entered the draft as a strong safety.
But Ward is listed here simply because San Francisco envisions him as being its primary slot corner entering his rookie season. According to the 49ers' official Twitter account, Fangio said Ward "will get every opportunity" to start at nickel cornerback.
This flexibility is a great thing for Ward, who can play at either the safety or slot corner positions. This gives Fangio plenty of options when it comes to formulating his defense in the coming year.
It is also worth touting Ward's accolades at Northern Illinois. During his senior year, Ward notched 10 passes defended and 95 tackles. His seven interceptions that season were second in the NCAA.
The 49ers will unquestionably benefit from Ward's ball-hawk abilities along with his aggressive style of play.
So why is he not listed higher on this projected depth chart?
The key reason is this: Ward suffered a foot injury prior to combine workouts, and the lingering effects have carried over into 49ers training camp.
This has forced Fangio to explore other options at the slot corner position—a situation he revealed via Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News:
[Ward is] going to certainly get every opportunity to [be the No. 3 corner], but he’s missed all this time, he’s learning, he’s a rookie, etc. We’ll all have to be a little patient with him. When you’re skipping the practice part, you’re skipping the most important part. [Ward] has done everything he can under the circumstances to learn our defense and improve. But he’s got to go play.
This leads us to one simple conclusion.
Ward is going to be behind come the regular season. Just how fast he gets up to speed remains to be seen. From the 49ers' vantage point, they would obviously like that to happen sooner rather than later.
So for the sake of discussion, let us assume San Francisco keeps Ward active in Week 1 but relegates him to the No. 4 cornerback position starting the season.
He will have the chance to climb up the depth chart, but the 49ers feel little need to rush things.
Perhaps a change in scenery is all that the 34th-overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft needs to resurrect what has been, up to this point, a disappointing career.
For former-Minnesota Vikings-turned-49ers corner Chris Cook, this is exactly the scenario everyone in San Francisco wants to see happen.
On the previous slide, we illustrated why first-rounder Jimmie Ward may not earn the accolade of No. 3 cornerback to start the 2014 season. Injury has pushed back his development.
With Cook, that is not the case.
On the positive side of things, Cook does excel in press-based coverage, which is primarily what he will see under Fangio.
But the negative is that Cook flopped a season ago with a lousy Vikings secondary—allowing the most touchdowns at the position, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Cook and the 49ers will have to look beyond that aspect and focus more on the elements that resulted in him being a second-round pick a few years ago. He is 6'2", 200 pounds, so the size is there as well as good speed, as Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area also observes:
Another factor in Cook's favor is that he has been working out with the 49ers' first-team defense, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com, primarily in the stead of the limited Chris Culliver as he recuperates from injury.
Filling this role, Cook has performed surprisingly well.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh referred to Cook as an ascending player, via Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News, stating, "He’s showing up and making plays. He’s getting his hands on the ball, he’s made interceptions and he’s done a good job."
At best, Cook beats out Culliver for one of the starting cornerback jobs. All this could be dependent on how the 49ers feel about Culliver's recovery as well.
But let us assume that Culliver eventually wins out on that role, which forces Cook a little further down the depth chart. With Ward recovering from his respective injury, Cook should slide into the No. 3 cornerback position at least to start the season.
Let us forget the off-the-field issues that have plagued three-year veteran cornerback Chris Culliver for a moment and focus solely on what his impact will be in the 2014 season.
Perhaps the most recent memories of Culliver 49ers fans have is when he was getting burned in the 2012 postseason. Those are not good thoughts.
But the fact is that Culliver does have a lot of talent—unquestioned talent that was missed all of last season when he suffered a knee injury during training camp.
Now, Culliver is aiming to return fully healthy and compete for a top spot in San Francisco's defense.
While the talent is there, guarantees are rarely offered from the 49ers' vantage point. Players have to earn their roles, and Culliver is no exception.
This was pointed out by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, who wrote back during the draft:
The 49ers found a player to replace Carlos Rogers as the nickel cornerback in the first round with the selection of safety Jimmie Ward. But cornerback remains on the 49ers’ list of priorities entering the final day of the draft, and it's possible the 49ers could still add a player to compete with Culliver for a starting job.
We now know what the 49ers depth chart looks like at the position, and it is reasonable to assume Culliver is safe to remain on the roster, probably earning the nod at No. 2 corner.
But as mentioned on the previous slide, Culliver is not being rushed by San Francisco's coaching staff, which has opened up the door for Chris Cook to receive a lot of the first-team reps.
But James Brady of Niners Nation projects Culliver to be a potential breakout candidate in 2014, citing his strong abilities against some of the bigger, faster wide receivers he played against in 2012.
Brady does admit that Culliver has looked "lost" on plays at times, but for the most part, Culliver's positives outweigh the negatives.
We won't go as far as saying Culliver emerges as a breakout corner just yet. The real test will be when Culliver has reached 100 percent, both in terms of his recovery and on-the-field play.
“I’m a guy who likes to get out there and compete and play,” he said, via CBS Local. “You don’t want stumbles, you want to keep progressing. That’s what I’m doing right now. I feel good, soon to be feeling great.”
Let us assume that Culliver does return fully healthy. This, combined with his talents, should give him an excellent shot at earning San Francisco's No. 2 cornerback job.
Tramaine Brock's stellar 2013 season had plenty of effects on San Francisco's defense this offseason.
First, it warranted the decision to part ways with veteran corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
Additionally, it allowed the 49ers to push Brock all the way up the depth chart and into the No. 1 cornerback slot.
His five-interception, 15-passes-defended campaign was enough to give San Francisco comfort in doing this. ESPN Stats & Info also praises Brock: "For @SGJR80 re 49ers CBs: Tramaine Brock accounted for 5 of 6 INTs last season by a 49er CB still with the team #NFLstatchat."
While nothing is guaranteed, Brock is essentially a shoo-in to earn the top spot on the 49ers depth chart this season.
It's a great story for the undrafted free agent who is now slated to be the top corner on San Francisco's roster.
“It’s all coming together like I envisioned it when I was young,” Brock relayed to Taylor Price of 49ers.com. “I never wanted to just be ‘OK’ with being in the NFL. It’s starting to lead into what I was always thinking, what I was always dreaming of.”
Brock was once the understudy of veteran corners like Brown and Rogers. Now he is the principle veteran at the position and is surrounded by a young cast of characters who will unquestionably look up to him this season.
While it’s safe to say the 49ers' weakest position going into the 2014 season is at cornerback, the one starting position that is set in stone is Tramaine Brock on the outside. With his play in 2013, and the 49ers faith in him with a contract extension that includes $7 million in guaranteed money, Brock should be a fixture in the defensive backfield for several years to come.
Now the attention shifts to what impact Brock will play in an increased role. As mentioned, he is the primary corner on San Francisco's roster headed toward the 2014 season.
If he is able to match the level of play the 49ers got out of him last season, signs will continue to be good in San Francisco's secondary. Additionally, he can help mentor some of the younger crop of defensive backs brought in during the offseason.
San Francisco's secondary still has a lot of pertinent questions as we draw near to the start of the 2014 season.
This unit received nearly an entire makeover from last season—adding a slew of players to comprise what has become a deep position.
We can easily predict the top (Brock) and the bottom (Reaser) when it comes to formulating this depth chart. Between those two players, the middle is essentially up for grabs.
Gradually, of course, we will come to know more as the regular season draws near. Additionally, the depth chart may—perhaps will—change as other players rise and fall.
At any rate, the cornerback situation looks much more solidified heading into 2014. For a vaunted San Francisco defense, this is obviously a good mark.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers' news, analysis and insight. Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.