The candidates are many and the jobs few. But beginning this week during the 49ers’ start to organized team activities (OTAs), cornerbacks on the San Francisco roster will make their cases to earn big roles in 2014.
With the departure of two veteran corners who played big roles the past three seasons – Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown (now both with the Raiders) – Chris Culliver, Eric Wright, Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Darryl Morris and rookies Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker will be competing to replace them.
Veteran Tramaine Brock at this point is the only returning starter from 2013, having earned the job last season with a breakout performance. The former undrafted free agent from Belhaven College, entering his fifth season, played in all 16 games in 2013, with five interceptions (one returned for a TD), 13 passes defensed and 35 tackles. But opposite Brock, the other corner slot and the nickel job are up for grabs.
It’s presumed that No. 1 draft pick Jimmie Ward (currently out until training camp after a foot injury), will earn the team’s No. 3 job and face up against slot receivers in nickel coverage. And Culliver, a third-round pick in 2011 from South Carolina, is the favorite to earn the job opposite Brock. Culliver played all 16 regular-season games in 2012 when the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl and was a regular contributor. In two seasons he has three interceptions, 73 tackles, 14 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. But the 6-foot, 199-pounder missed all of the 2013 season with an ACL tear.
Culliver has had some problems off the field, but the 49ers appear willing to give him a chance to redeem himself. Earlier this spring, he was arrested for a traffic incident (pleading not guilty to misdemeanor hit-and-run charges and felony possession of brass knuckles), and he also made an anti-gay statement before the 49ers played in the Super Bowl against the Ravens. But, as Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out in a story in April, Culliver since that Super Bowl has put in time helping the Trevor Project, which supports LGBT youth, and also has a foundation (Critter Lovers at Work, CLAW) that champions the cause of animal welfare.
Recently, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said Brock and Culliver have “the license and ability” to be the team’s starting corners, and that Ward will compete with Wright, Cox and other corners to be the top slot defender.
But the 49ers signed Cook after four seasons with the Vikings, and Wright and Cox each contributed for the 49ers in 2013. Morris, too, played very well on special teams as a rookie. The former undrafted free agent from Texas State is the fastest player in the secondary. He’s only 5-foot-9, but he ran a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash and likes to hit – a great combination. With good OTAs, minicamp and training camp, Morris could climb the ladder into more playing time.
And Johnson – a fourth-round choice from North Carolina State – has an intriguing skill set.
He’s a tall corner at 6-foot-2 1/8 and has better speed than any of the tallest corners taken in this year’s draft. As a senior, he had three interceptions and 82 tackles while starting every game. He says he’s been watching film of some of the NFL’s best tall corners – such as Champ Bailey and Richard Sherman – to study how they move and work in press coverage.
“Just trying to simulate and see how they move and different body languages,” Johnson said recently. “My body type being a longer guy, I definitely tend to watch taller guys and pretty much model my game after that, technique wise.”
With cornerback a position of need and with a variety of candidates, competition at the position should be one of the most interesting stories on the team this summer.