Competition among players during the San Francisco 49ers' offseason program promises to be fierce.
San Francisco has one of the deepest teams in the league, and with roster spots, playing time and even starting roles all up for grabs, there are plenty of positional battles that will be interesting to watch in the weeks leading up the new campaign.
But one area where the 49ers arguably do not possess great depth is at cornerback.
Having parted company with Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers and added three corners during the draft, the San Francisco secondary will be much changed from the one that featured in a defense ranked at No. 7 against the pass in 2013.
Tramaine Brock looks certain to take one of the starting cornerback spots after enjoying a breakthrough 2013 season, while Chris Culliver is widely expected to be the other starter.
However, Culliver is still working his way back from the torn ACL that kept him on the sidelines last year and could yet face a suspension from the NFL after being charged with felony possession of brass knuckles following a hit-and-run incident in San Jose back in March.
Culliver's preliminary hearing, per David Fucillo of SB Nation, has been continued until July 10, and any punishment from the league is unlikely to happen until the legal proceedings have run their course.
Still, given his off-the-field problems and lack of time on the practice field, it is conceivable that someone else takes the starting job instead.
And one player that has the capability to take over from Culliver is newly acquired free agent Chris Cook.
But, despite his poor start to life in the NFL, Cook has a number of tools that make him ideally suited to the role of starting cornerback and perhaps a better option than Culliver.
The 27-year-old is not without his deficiencies, though, and here I look at the pros and cons of the 49ers starting Cook in 2014.
Let's start by taking a quick look at the prospective depth chart for the 49ers cornerbacks for the new season.
Versatile first-round pick Jimmie Ward is slated to be the guy at nickel corner, although he will need to play catchup if he is to cement that spot in his rookie year having so far been limited in terms of on-field practice during the offseason after undergoing surgery on an injured foot back in March.
Pro Football Focus list Cook as a backup to the two main starters along with Perrish Cox, but with the physically gifted Dontae Johnson—who the Niners used a fourth-round pick to select—also in the reckoning, Cook will have to be at his best in training camp and preseason in order to earn substantial playing time.
So what are the reasons why Cook deserves to be named as a starter for the 49ers?
The first thing to note about Cook is his size.
At 6'2" and 212 pounds, Cook fits the bill of big-bodied cornerbacks that are becoming the norm in the NFL because of the success enjoyed by the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
By this point everyone in the league will be familiar with the physical press-coverage adopted by the Seahawks secondary, which is sure to have its fair share of imitators in 2014.
San Francisco is likely to be one such team looking to borrow from the prosperity of the Seahawks, something that became apparent with the acquisition of Cook.
Upon signing with the 49ers, Cook—in a conference call with Bay Area reporters—revealed that he was brought in to be "a press guy," a role that should suit him given his physical attributes.
Cook's frame should enable him to be proficient in press coverage and compete with the bigger receivers in the league, and he combines that size with good speed to stay with the quicker wideouts in the NFL.
Having clocked 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash prior to being drafted, Cook undoubtedly has the raw pace that NFL teams are looking for from players at the cornerback position, although he has yet to make best use of his qualities during his pro career.
San Francisco will look to get more out of Cook and his undoubted athletic gifts than the Vikings did. And his chances of being successful with the Niners should be boosted by Cook's ability to contribute in run defense.
Per PFF (subscription required), Cook has only missed 15 tackles in his NFL career and was a consistent contributor against the run in his time in Minnesota.
Indeed, Cook was responsible for 2.1 percent of the Vikings' stops on run defense in 2013, ranking at No. 14 among all cornerbacks in that aspect of his game.
Cook's proficiency versus the ground game should prove valuable to a defense that was No. 4 in the NFL when facing the rush last year and has made a living out of its ability to keep opposing running-backs in check.
Yet, while there are plenty of positives to Cook's game, there are also a number of weaknesses that may deter the 49ers from naming him as a starting cornerback.
There is no polite way of putting it, Cook's spell with the Vikings was nothing short of terrible.
In four years in Minnesota, Cook—whose ball skills had been praised prior to entering the pros—has failed to register a single interception.
It is therefore obvious that the 49ers will be looking for more production from Cook, especially when you consider that San Francisco was in the top 10 for interceptions last season, totaling 18.
Five of those picks came courtesy of Brock, with free safety Eric Reid also proving his worth as a starter by contributing with four.
And if Cook is to be considered as a legitimate starter, then he will need to show the 49ers that he has the ability to make big plays and generate turnovers.
To his credit, Cook—per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee—has been working with potential third-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson on improving his ability to locate and make a play on the ball, with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio conceding that Cook needs to step it up in that area of his game.
When the ball's thrown up you've got to be able to find the ball and make a play on the ball. And he's struggled there in his past. So whatever we can do to improve him in that area will go a long way in helping his career.
If he can strengthen that aspect of his game, then Cook's chances of displacing Culliver, or at least making sure of some significant playing time, will increase substantially.
However, Cook's prospective turnaround needs to involve preventing big plays as well as making them.
That is because Cook, for all his physical skills, was a liability for the Vikings in pass coverage and was ranked at No. 88 among all cornerbacks by PFF in that area in 2013.
According to PFF, Cook was also responsible for allowing nine touchdowns in coverage, tied for worst in the NFL alongside Buster Skrine of the Cleveland Browns.
Simply put, the 49ers, who face the fourth toughest schedule in the NFL in 2014, cannot afford for Cook to allow the same to happen in 2014.
The poor performance of Cook can somewhat be attributed to the Vikings, who operated in a zone coverage scheme that does not really play to his strengths.
Indeed, in his NFL 1000 series, B/R's Matt Miller described Cook as "a safe, assignment-style cover man," meaning that he should be a better fit for the Niners system.
Still, while Cook fits well for San Francisco's defensive scheme, his off-the-field concerns must be taken into consideration when determining the 27-year-old's role in the upcoming season.
In October 2011, Cook was arrested on domestic assault charges and was suspended for one game, although he was later acquitted and has kept his nose relatively clean since that point.
Cook's conduct will be under as much scrutiny as every other 49ers player in the build-up to the new campaign, particularly after an offseason that has seen San Francisco have to deal with the well-documented off-the-field problems of Culliver, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and linebacker Aldon Smith.
The 49ers have already shown that they have faith in Cook by bringing him into the mix, however, even if he is able to stand out in training camp, San Francisco will need to know that he can be a disciplined servant both on and off the field before potentially entrusting him with a starting position.
Despite Cook's noticeable and exciting physical attributes, Culliver is the clear favorite to be the starter alongside Brock.
Any suspension for Culliver would obviously tip the scales in the favour of Cook, however, the 49ers like what they have in Culliver, who has 4.4-second speed and the advantage of added familiarity with the San Francisco defense.
But at 6'0" Culliver does not possess the same size as Cook, something which is becoming increasingly important in a league that appears to be trending towards bigger corners.
Given his dreadful experience in Minnesota, it is fair to assume that Cook will need to drastically impress in order to have any chance of earning the starting job.
Yet, should Cook show flashes of the form that convinced the Vikings to select him in the early rounds, then the 49ers could have a difficult decision to make come the start of the season.
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