The Case for the San Francisco 49ers To Move Nate Clements To Safety

Blaine SpenceSenior Writer IMarch 31, 2010

Once upon a time, the 49ers signed a high profile cornerback—no, not that one.

This cornerback had been named to seven Pro-Bowls, was a five-time First-team All-Pro selection, and was the 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

The cornerback of course, was Rod Woodson.

But something seemed to happen to Woodson when he arrived in San Francisco, he wasn’t the player he once was in Pittsburgh…could it be that he had lost a step?

Two years earlier on opening day, Woodson suffered a severe knee surgery. He tore his knee apart when attempting to tackle the Detroit Lions’ elusive Barry Sanders.

The injury required re-constructive knee surgery and most experts were predicting anywhere from six to twelve months of recovery and rehabilitation.

Woodson shocked the NFL community when he returned in only four months and was able to play in Super Bowl XXX.

The following season Woodson returned to Pro-Bowl form with six interceptions, 121 return yards, and a 43-yard “pick-six”.

Yet he was also beaten several times on long passes. One deep ball error in particular occurred in a playoff game against the New England Patriots—that just didn't happen to Rod Woodson.

The Steelers refused to re-sign Woodson to the big money contract he and his agent were looking for. Had they realized the ten-year veteran had seen his best years as a cornerback?

“There is some truth to that…”, said Dan Rooney, Chairman and owner Pittsburgh Steelers

Enter the 49ers.

When Woodson became an unrestricted free agent, it was a foregone conclusion that he would end up in San Francisco. I even remember one sports caster remarking glibly,

“Wouldn’t Rod Woodson look good in red and gold?”

Woodson signed a three-year contract worth $5.1 million.

Woodson was easily the best of San Francisco’s cornerbacks in 1997, but when the guys playing opposite you are the 5’8” Darnell Walker and Marques Pope (great as a safety with the Rams but stunk as a CB with the 49ers), that is not saying much.

After one season the team released Woodson in what was described as a salary cap move.

But if this was a salary cap move then why did the team sign Antonio Langham to a five-year contract ($17 million) the following year to replace him?  

Obviously this was a very dark time in the history of the 49ers’ secondary. Thank god for Tim McDonald and Merton Hanks. But I digress.

Woodson went on to sign with the Baltimore Ravens. After one year at corner, the Ravens moved Woodson to free safety.

Almost immediately, the move paid off. From his safety position Woodson would post his highest interception total (seven) since his stellar performance of 1993.

Woodson would play for five more years and be named to another four Pro-Bowls, with his last coming at the ripe old age of 37 with the Oakland Raiders.

Okay, so let’s fast forward to Oct 11, 2009 at Candlestick, the 49ers vs. the Atlanta Falcons. Now if you’re a member of the faithful, you know what play I am going to bring up.

But for those of you that aren’t, Roddy White feasted on the 49ers’ and their secondary (eight Receptions, 210 Yds, and two TD's). On the play in question, White caught the ball, eluded the would-be tackle of Clements, and then left him eating his dust as he scampered 90 yards to pay dirt.

Later in the season, for the game against the Indianapolis Colts, Clements would be benched in favor of the younger and quicker Tarell Brown. To add insult to injury, Clements sustained a fractured clavicle in the game and was lost for the remainder of the season.

Now I know that nobody is going to fool Nate Clements for Rod Woodson, but with Clements physical style of play (Atlanta game excluded), and his penchant for forcing turnovers (14 since 2004), wouldn’t it make sense to move him to the safety position opposite Dashon Goldson?

Clements has never really earned the kind of money he is getting from the team (it was actually a seven-year deal for $64 million), and he is scheduled to earn six million dollars for the upcoming season.

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The 49ers could release him, but that doesn’t seem likely, as they may still have to absorb a large amount of his contract.

If Clements were to become a free agent, I find it hard to believe teams would be lining up to give him pocketfuls of cash.

It seems to me, a few less dollars, and a move to safety might be just what the doctor ordered for Clements and the team.

It worked for Woodson.

The 49ers have indicated they have no immediate plans to move Clements to safety, but that could change after the draft.

Especially if they draft a guy named Haden.


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