There are plenty of questions hanging over the 49ers secondary this offseason.
Will safety Donte Whitner, an unrestricted free agent, walk away? Will the team try to re-sign cornerback Tarell Brown, a starter for the past three years who was supplanted because of an injury late this past season? And will the 49ers keep starting corner Carlos Rogers, who is due to receive $6.6 million in 2014?
Much will be determined from February through May, with free agency and the draft.
But one given is the return of cornerback Chris Culliver.
Culliver was the 49ers’ nickel corner in 2012 and played a large role on a defense that helped San Francisco reach the Super Bowl.
But Culliver blew out his ACL early in training camp last August and missed the entire 2013 season. The 49ers shuttled several players in and out of the nickel role in his absence, including Tramaine Brock – who eventually won a starting role – Nnamdi Asomugha, Brown, Eric Wright and Perrish Cox. With Asomugha released during the season and Brown, Wright and Cox all entering free agency, the cornerback position could be the biggest area of change for the team this year.
But Culliver’s rehab from surgery has gone well, and he’s now resumed full sprints and says he expects to participate in the team’s entire offseason program. Head coach Jim Harbaugh recently told reporters that Culliver looks good. Culliver, a 2011 third-round pick from South Carolina, is still under his initial four-year contract, and – with a good offseason and training camp – could work himself back into position for the nickel role or a starting role should Brown and Rogers be left off the roster.
Culliver said he’s working hard to be in a position to contribute in 2014.
“I work every day and do what I need to do and contribute to the team how I need to contribute to it,” Culliver recently told Bay Area reporters. “I’m a good player. Whatever happens is whatever happens. I might not even be here. You don’t know. You don’t know what’s going to happen. … I’m here to work and keep pushing for it.”
Though Culliver had some lapses late in the 2012 season – including mistakes in coverage in the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens – he generally played well in 2011 and ’12. In 2012, he played 63 percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps.
When Culliver was injured in training camp, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio acknowledged it was a big blow to the secondary.
“Obviously, we took a shot (with the injury) and it puts stress on everybody else in the group,” Fangio said at the time.
Now, Culliver is back from a long, rocky rehab road. In addition to getting ready for 2014, he said he’ll help his teammate, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, during his recovery from knee surgery. Bowman suffered ACL and MCL tears in the NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle.
“I’m going to be there every step of the way,” Culliver told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “And help him out in anything he needs, any concern he has. … I’m going to be there. Because I’m going through it right now.”
Culliver told Barrows it was a difficult moment to watch Bowman get hurt against the Seahawks.
“It definitely was hard,” Culliver said. “I cried. … You play this game and put all your effort into it. It’s injuries, and it comes with the game. But it’s hard. You just have to find a way to keep your spirits up and keep pushing.”
In 2014, all that pushing could lead to a large role for Culliver in the 49ers’ secondary.