When the San Francisco 49ers cut cornerback Carlos Rogers, the natural assumption was that fourth-year cornerback Chris Culliver would step in and assume Rogers’ role at right cornerback.
The notion made a ton of sense considering Culliver registered 47 combined tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and an overall Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade of plus-5.7 in 2012.
Nonetheless, Culliver has had his fair share of problems off the field, and he is still recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in August. This, in turn, means former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook and veteran cornerback Perrish Cox have seen additional first-team reps at right cornerback.
Of the two players mentioned above, Cox has done enough to make it to training camp, while Cook has blown San Francisco’s coaching staff away in a short period of time. Not only has he picked up the defensive scheme rather quickly, he has made more than a few eye-opening plays during OTAs.
In fact, head coach Jim Harbaugh told the media that Cook is an ascending player, via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News: “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.”
With that being said, let’s take a look at how Cook can impact the 49ers secondary in 2014.
Make no mistake about it, Cook hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status. When the Vikings selected him with the 34th pick in the 2010 NFL draft, Minnesota believed it was getting a physical, shutdown corner who possessed good ball skills.
Unfortunately, Cook never materialized into the player the Vikings thought he could be. Amid his four-year tenure in Minnesota, the second-round selection didn’t record a single interception; he missed 30 games for various reasons and finished with a minus-11.5 PFF grade.
Clearly, those types of numbers don’t exactly instill confidence in 49ers fans, but that’s OK because Cook did flash at times, which means he has the potential to further develop with the proper coaching.
According to Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, the most advanced area of Cook’s game is his tackling ability: “A solid tackler, Cook uses his length to get to the ball and wrap up. If he can learn to keep his feet moving and drive through his tackles, he could take off.”
Miller’s evaluation is correct based on the fact the analysts at PFF only have Cook down for 15 missed tackles in his career. That’s an impressive number since top-rated cornerbacks like Ladarius Webb and Tim Jennings combined for 30 missed tackles in 2013.
Cook’s second area of impact comes in the run game. Per PFF, the 27-year-old corner registered 14 defensive stops and a stop percentage of 2.1 in 2013. For those of you who are unfamiliar with stop percentage, it’s the percentage of a player’s run defense snaps where he was responsible for a stop.
Cook’s stop percentage of 2.1 was the 14th-best mark in the league. For the sake of comparison, he finished with a higher stop percentage than All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis and Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib.
As we know, Revis and Talib are two of the best corners in the game, so it wouldn’t be wise to write Cook off, even if we are talking about how well both players performed against the run.
Chris Cook allowed 9 TDs (T-1st among CBs) in coverage last year, with no interceptions. 140.3 QB rating allowed was 2nd highest among CBs.— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) March 12, 2014
As far as Cook’s coverage skills go, they are not where they need to be after a porous season in 2013, but things are getting better now that he has a handle on the system said Harbuagh, via Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee: “He’s ascending now that he’s got a good grasp and understanding of our system.”
That’s music to the 49ers’ ears because Cook surrendered 42 receptions (59 targets), 557 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. No other defensive back in the NFL allowed more touchdowns through the air than he did.
Nevertheless, when you watch the tape, it’s apparent that the Vikings weren’t always putting Cook in a position to succeed. Why? Because Minnesota forced him to play zone coverage when he should have been playing man coverage.
No wonder Cook has enjoyed his time in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense so far. “I like this defense a lot and feel it fits my style of play,” Cook said, via Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. “I like to man up, and a lot of thing we do ends up being man coverage.”
When Miller of B/R evaluated Cook for B/R 1000, he said Cook is “a safe, assignment-style cover man.”
In all, inking Cook to a one-year deal was a bit of a risk due to his subpar coverage ability and his problems off the field. Yet, it never hurts to take a flier on a player who has shown he can make an impact as a tackler and in the run game.
All the 49ers have to do is continuously coach Cook up and make sure a majority of his snaps come in man coverage. If San Francisco is diligent in the way it uses him, the Virginia product could turn his career around the way Rogers turned his career around.
Let’s not forget, Rogers went from a failed first-round pick with the Washington Redskins to a Pro Bowl player with the 49ers. In his first season (2011) with San Francisco, Rogers amassed six interceptions, 18 passes defended and an opposing quarterback rating of 65.1.
With the help of Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell, there’s no reason Cook can’t put up similar numbers. However, he will have to keep his nose clean off the field and take to coaching on the field.
That’s the only way Cook will be able to revive his career in the Bay Area.
Unless otherwise noted all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).