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Why Cornerback Is San Francisco 49ers' Top Non-WR Draft Need

Joe Levitt@jlevitt16Contributor IIIFebruary 27, 2015

Notwithstanding this downfield completion, the San Francisco 49ers could be without their top two corners in Chris Culliver (No. 29) and Perrish Cox (No. 20) in 2015.
Notwithstanding this downfield completion, the San Francisco 49ers could be without their top two corners in Chris Culliver (No. 29) and Perrish Cox (No. 20) in 2015.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The San Francisco 49ers, wide receiver and team needs comprise one of those pre-draft trios that everyone knows and is likely tired of hearing about.

Unless, that is, they're one of those cave-dwelling, off-the-grid types whose daily concerns lie in foraging and other rudimentary, life-functioning necessities.

But as it pertains to the Niners’ deficiencies on the gridiron, their next leading positional deficit is almost as great as the first. And despite being tasked with directly covering said offensive position, the publicity it receives pales in comparison.

Let’s break down why cornerback is San Francisco’s top non-WR draft need.

99 Problems, and Cornerback is Definitely 1

Niners rookie corner Jimmie Ward (No. 25) coughed up four touchdowns in coverage in 2014.
Niners rookie corner Jimmie Ward (No. 25) coughed up four touchdowns in coverage in 2014.USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers have just five cornerbacks who boast any NFL experience under contract in 2015.

Only two of those corners registered a start last year, one whose season ended after just three games and another who faded down the stretch as a rookie.

Another member of that returning contingent struggled mightily in 2014 before an injury truncated his rookie campaign. The other two have already bounced around between multiple teams in their first two years in the league.

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In other words, Tramaine Brock, Dontae Johnson, Jimmie Ward, Leon McFadden and Marcus Cromartie aren’t exactly an inspiring group.

Worse yet, San Francisco’s top-two cornerbacks and a key reserve asset are free agents. And the reinforcements, unfortunately, come in the form of two redshirt sophomores and an undrafted free agent out of New Mexico State.

Subbing Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Chris Cook for Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser and Cameron Fuller presents a considerable problem indeed.

Kenneth Acker (No. 38) produced a forgettable 2014 preseason before redshirting his rookie season for the 49ers.
Kenneth Acker (No. 38) produced a forgettable 2014 preseason before redshirting his rookie season for the 49ers.USA TODAY Sports

So when you really think about it, which position is more lacking? Is it a receiving corps of Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington and receiver-like tight end Vernon Davis? Or is it the group mentioned above?

Some might argue that two 1,000-yard wideouts, an underutilized former 1,000-yard college standout, a promising second-year man and a two-time double-digit-scoring tight end isn’t all that bad. A quarterback as talented as Colin Kaepernick could surely make ample use of those pass-catchers.

Then again, a true No. 1 wide receiver still doesn’t exist on this squad, and the guys who do sport a red-and-gold uniform all serve as the same type of underneath possession target. Not even the 4.3-second 40-yard-dash-running Davis consistently takes the top off a defense.

The sheer fact that the Niners have more capable bodies at defensive back qualifies receiver as a more critical issue.

OK, fair enough. But why is cornerback No. 2? What about the defensive line?

D-Line: Close but Not Quite

The 49ers could find themselves without the services of defensive linemen Ray McDonald (No. 91) AND Justin Smith (No. 94) this season.
The 49ers could find themselves without the services of defensive linemen Ray McDonald (No. 91) AND Justin Smith (No. 94) this season.Ben Margot/Associated Press

Leaving the off-the-field causes to past articles, the 49ers no longer have the services of Ray McDonald.

But make no mistake—it’s a huge loss.

Their starting left-side stalwart since 2011 was a top-15 player among Pro Football Focus’ 3-4 defensive ends over that span. He ranked as high as No. 2 (to a teammate mentioned below) and was No. 12 last season with three sacks, 39 quarterback pressures and the seventh-highest run-stop percentage.

A certain B/R scribe may have even deemed it a career year back in December.

Furthermore, Justin Smith, who has served as McDonald’s right-side partner in crime and the Niners’ most important overall defender since 2008, is pondering retirement.

Who could blame him, considering how that drama-filled 2014 campaign and subsequent offseason has unfolded?

To retire, or not to retire—that is the question plaguing 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith.
To retire, or not to retire—that is the question plaguing 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press

ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez reports that the five-time Pro Bowler and one-time first-team All-Pro will discuss his plans with general manager Trent Baalke in the coming days. It really could go either way at this point.

That said, there’s still a chance that Smith returns. And a defensive front that also features rising young players Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial and strong veterans Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams is still a formidable enough group.

The first duo registered five sacks and 21 quarterback hurries in limited pass-rush snaps last year. The latter two, meanwhile, earned high-ranking scores from Pro Football Focus in recent seasons and will return fresh following an injured 2014 season.

Each one of those trench warriors brings versatility as well, having lined up at multiple positions along the line.

Having established all that, what merits cornerback as a more pressing non-WR draft need for the 49ers?

Free Agency…

San Francisco hopes it can retain free-agent corner Perrish Cox and his team-high five interceptions from last season.
San Francisco hopes it can retain free-agent corner Perrish Cox and his team-high five interceptions from last season.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Let’s start with the 49ers’ free-agent stalwarts.

Cox elevated from dime back in extra personnel sets to a 14-game starter after Brock went down with a turf toe injury. He ranked tops among NFL corners with five interceptions and led San Francisco with 18 pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.

He also notched the seventh-highest tackling efficiency rate at his position while covering receivers on the outside and in the slot. Such production and versatility will earn him a substantial raise after playing under a meager one-year, $645,000 deal, per Over the Cap.

Culliver, meanwhile, began last season with a bang, scooping up a fumble in Week 1 and returning it for a touchdown. He then finished second on the team with four picks and 15 pass breakups by year’s end.

The stat brains at PFF awarded Culliver with the No. 14 overall ranking among the 108 cornerbacks graded. He forced quarterbacks into the seventh-worst completion percentage (50.7) and 10th-lowest passer rating (66.5).

Free agent Chris Culliver and his second-leading four interceptions are almost certain to leave the 49ers.
Free agent Chris Culliver and his second-leading four interceptions are almost certain to leave the 49ers.USA TODAY Sports

He also allowed a reception just once every 13.3 snaps he played in coverage, which rated in the top six.

Combine all that, and the third-round pick in 2011 is due a massive raise. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reports that despite his series of off-the-field incidents, a “very significant market” exists for Culliver.

Teams simply place a high premium on proven cover guys in this pass-crazed NFL.

The 49ers and their minimal $3.7 million in salary-cap space likely won't engage in any bidding war. The four-year, $14 million deal they doled out to Brock, who was undrafted out of Belhaven College in 2010, won’t suffice.

Despite his failures against the Denver Broncos last season, Tramaine Brock (No. 26) will rebound as the 49ers' No. 1 corner in 2015.
Despite his failures against the Denver Broncos last season, Tramaine Brock (No. 26) will rebound as the 49ers' No. 1 corner in 2015.Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

If Cox also commands a substantial extension and lands elsewhere, then Brock, Ward, Johnson, McFadden, Cromartie, Acker and Reaser would comprise the cornerback depth chart.

Brock would hold down the No. 1 spot just fine. He compiled the third-most interceptions (five) and ninth-highest grade in coverage from PFF in 2013.

The remaining members of the crew, on the other hand, don’t offer the same dependability.

…and the Unknown

Even with his pick-six and numerous productive moments, cornerback Dontae Johnson (No. 36) allowed five touchdowns in coverage last year.
Even with his pick-six and numerous productive moments, cornerback Dontae Johnson (No. 36) allowed five touchdowns in coverage last year.Tim Sharp/Associated Press

Johnson showcased some impressive work at times as a rookie. He limited quarterbacks to a 58.3 completion rate and notched six pass breakups and a pick-six while logging time at left, right and slot corner.

But the versatile defender allowed three touchdowns in coverage over the Niners’ final four games, including two to Arizona Cardinals wideout Michael Floyd. He also surrendered a 106.3 passer rating for the year.

Although Johnson saw more action than he could ever anticipate during his first year in the league, the 6’2” fourth-round pick remains a work in progress.

The same applies to Ward.

Drafted No. 30 overall last season, the Northern Illinois product earned negative scores across the board from PFF. He coughed up four touchdowns, a 72.0 completion percentage and a 134.3 passer rating to quarterbacks throwing in his coverage area.

Size difference or not, Ward didn't utilize effective coverage technique against Brandon Marshall (No. 15) or any other receiver in 2014.
Size difference or not, Ward didn't utilize effective coverage technique against Brandon Marshall (No. 15) or any other receiver in 2014.Tony Avelar/Associated Press/Associated Press

Call it rookie growing pains, but since he played in just eight games, Ward must continue developing in 2015.

Finally, second-year corners McFadden and Cromartie totaled just 109 snaps after arriving in San Francisco as late-season pickups. Only Cromartie has ever produced an NFL start.

Reaser and Acker, for their part, came to the 49ers as fifth- and sixth-round selections. The latter showed promise at times in the offseason, but allowing one touchdown, an 81.8 completion rate and 120.5 passer rating over four preseason games left much to be desired.

Both young assets otherwise redshirted during their rookie campaigns.

Brutal Schedule, Lethal Wideouts, Draft Prospects

As the most lethal small guy on the field, John Brown (No. 12) burned Ward and the 49ers for two touchdowns last season.
As the most lethal small guy on the field, John Brown (No. 12) burned Ward and the 49ers for two touchdowns last season.USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers face a brutal 2015 schedule.

Their opponents amassed a combined 143-112-1 (.561) record in 2014. Only two other teams must endure a higher aggregate winning percentage by the opposition, per John Breech of CBS Sports.

Said lineup also features an unreasonable number of matchups against returning playoff teams (nine) and an even greater amount of lethal wideouts.

The latter includes Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, John Brown, Randall Cobb, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall and Jordy Nelson.

Of that group, Beckham, Brown, Cobb, Jeffery, and Nelson all made the Pro Bowl and totaled at least 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. Green, Johnson and Jones achieved the first of those two marks, while Brown, Fitzgerald, Floyd and Marshall bring size, speed and/or tremendous hands to the wide receiver position.

And the point in all this is?

The 49ers need cornerbacks—and as many as they can get their hands on this offseason.

They must re-sign who they can afford in free agency while also selecting a big-time collegiate corner in the early rounds if not the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.

Whether it entails moving up for this year’s elite prospect in Trae Waynes of Michigan State or Florida State’s pro-ready standout P.J. Williams in the second or the physical specimen that is Connecticut’s Byron Jones early in the third among others, San Francisco must bolster its corps of defensive backs.

The forthcoming schedule is just too difficult, and the opposition’s pass-catchers are just too deadly to neglect drafting the best means for combating these gridiron weapons.

And if Culliver, Cox and Cook move on to other teams, not to mention Justin Smith’s possible retirement, the need becomes much greater for the 49ers.

Stay tuned for updates as the pre-draft process unfolds in earnest.

All team and player statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted. All contract information courtesy of Over the Cap. Advanced metrics provided by Pro Football Focus.

 

Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16

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