What about that secondary?
The 49ers' backfield underwent plenty of changes during the offseason. Gone are veterans like safety Donte Whitner and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
San Francisco welcomed veterans like safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Chris Cook. It also drafted defensive backs like Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker. Chris Culliver also returns from missing all of the 2013 season.
These components will be placed alongside returning players Eric Reid and Tramaine Brock. Additionally, the 49ers are looking at depth players like Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris to round out the roster.
In short, there are a lot of new faces for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell to work with.
Let's start with the returning players.
Reid will look to back up his rookie campaign that saw him earn a trip to the Pro Bowl. It is hard to envision any concerns there. Brock cemented his role as a starting corner, essentially making Brown expendable.
But Brock has started a mere seven games in his four-year career, and one has to wonder whether or not that inexperience will show.
Culliver is likely the favorite to earn the other starting job at corner, but can he shake off a forgettable playoff performance from 2012, as well as the missed 2013 season, as he works toward the competition at the position?
Cox and Morris figure to battle it out for a potential slot cornerback starting job, if not just for added depth.
But the new faces are what need to be evaluated here.
Bethea is perhaps the most promising of additions made on defense via free agency. In contrast to Whitner's hard-hitting reputation, Bethea had a zero-penalty campaign in 2013 and provides smart, steady leadership in San Francisco's secondary per Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
The 49ers also tabbed free agent Cook, who spent a lackluster four years with the Minnesota Vikings.
The former second-round pick of the Vikings has the physical attributes of a gifted corner—6'2" and 200 pounds—but developed a reputation of having bad ball skills.
This is a reputation Cook hopes to shake off in his first season with the 49ers, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. But the ultimate test will be whether or not he can transform this weakness into a positive—a fact that will remain unknown to the 49ers until the regular season begins.
What of the rookies?
The 49ers obviously have high hopes on their first-round pick of the 2014 draft. Ward is slated to be a potential favorite at slot cornerback—a possibility described in the above video. Perhaps he has the potential to work his way into a starting safety role at a later point in his career.
But an offseason injury has limited Ward's development in 49ers workouts leading up to training camp.
Fangio noted via Branch of SF Gate that Ward has some serious catching up to do:
He’s going to be behind. And it’s going to be important for him—and for us as coaches—to realize he’s behind and just fight through that. Because he’s not going to look good early. You can sit in all these meetings you want, but the best way a players improves is: meet, go practice, come back and meet some more, learn what you did wrong, learn some new things, go practice … He’s not getting any of that practice. He can be practicing mentally in his head all he wants. That only takes you to a certain point. He’s got to go out there and experience it.
Exactly how this impacts Ward and the 49ers' defensive future at the start of the 2014 season is yet to be determined. What can be deduced is that Ward will have a lot of work to do which, in turn, puts even more pressure on the remainder of the secondary.
Regardless of how soon Ward is able to contribute, the 49ers defensive backfield has a lot to overcome for the preparations leading up to the 2014 season.
The new faces will have to jell with old ones. Fangio and Donatell will look to get the most out of this revamped unit. Hopefully, the added competition and coaches' abilities will be enough to meet the expectations in the weeks that follow.
The San Francisco 49ers will be looking to reach for the next step in the long line of success the franchise has enjoyed in its history.
Overcoming some of these critical obstacles will be key in making this step happen.
As we've stated, there are only a few areas of significant concern that warrant lofty attention heading towards training camp. But those concerns are substantial enough to evaluate and watch as San Francisco resumes training camp on July 16.
There are obviously other sagas and storylines that beg our attention surrounding the 49ers. But if San Francisco can address these concerns early and efficiently, the vast majority of worries would be moot as the team prepares itself for a 16-game season.
Now, all that remains is for all the solutions to be implemented.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers coverage, insight and analysis.
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