NFC West Position-by-Position: Cornerbacks

First off, I have only seen highlights and read Andrew's recap (big thanks to him for getting that up).  I'll be watching a recorded version of the game tomorrow when I return to SF and will have plenty to discuss tomorrow afternoon and into next week.  In the meantime, with the preseason getting going, we're nearing the end of our divisional position previews.  Today we hit cornerbacks.  To date, we've addressed safeties, outside linebacker, inside/middle linebacker, defensive end, defensive/nose tackle, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, centers, offensive tackles, guards and total offense.

1. Seattle Seahawks
2. Arizona Cardinals
3. San Francisco 49ers
4. St. Louis Rams

Seattle Seahawks
Blogger
: John Morgan
I don’t know Ken Lucas. I have known Ken Lucas, but I do not know the 30 year-old, recently cut by the Carolina Panthers Ken Lucas Seattle signed after the draft. The skill-set is still the same. Lucas is decent in man cover, but better at zone. He has great ball skills and is a sound open-field tackler. And the foundation of talent is still the same. Lucas is agile and athletic, but doesn’t have great deep speed. He’s physical and can lay a hit, but is not always steady and all those hits don’t lead to much. He only has two forced fumbles for his career. Josh Wilson already has three.

Wilson is Seattle’s nickelback and has the athleticism and talent to be perhaps the best nickelback in football. He’s exceptionally quick, agile and athletic. He has rare ball skills and despite his size, brings the hammer on tackles. His size, dependence on reading the quarterback’s eyes and habit of guessing wrong on routes cap his potential as a man defender, but Seattle is settled with him at nickel. There he can terrorize slot receivers, menace quarterbacks appearing out of a zone, strike as a blitzer and run back picks for a score.

Travis Fisher is a former starter that had the bad judgment to sign with the Detroit Lions. Like an overhyped, underbudgeted and overexpended bomb that kills actors careers, no Lion was spared an exodus from Detroit without at least a demotion. Fisher could still be very good if injuries and Recession City hasn’t leached his youth, vigor and soul. Kevin Hobbs is a rounded corner that will do a lot of little things well as a dime defender. He’s going to need to show something soon, because he’s not talented enough to stick in the league because of potential. Kelly Jennings is depth at starting corner. He’s not strong in a zone, not an open field tackler and has not shown pro-level ball skills, but he’s a very capable in strict man cover. Unfortunately, he stays close, but doesn’t do enough to stop the completion. Jennings is starting in place of Marcus Trufant.

Yeeaaah…about that.

Trufant never made it to training camp. He hurt his back in a drill and has been held out. Everyone is echoing the sentiment that he’s fine and this time out is just a precaution, but the length of the absence and the team’s recent history reporting back injuries causes concern.

Trufant has the ability to be a sub-elite corner. His man cover skills are excellent. He steps up against the run and is a steady open-field tackler. Given agreeable situations (i.e. a deep safety, a big lead, a cover 3) Trufant does have damn good ball skills, but he tends to forget them when things get dicey. He’s athletic and fast enough to run with anyone and on a good defense, Trufant is capable of being a great cornerback every game. He just hasn’t played on many great defenses.

If Trufant were healthy or I had a better grasp of how Lucas will play this season, Seattle’s corners could be an A. Potential for potential, it’s as deep, balanced, system correct and accomplished group as there is in the NFL. But there’s a lot of potential variance. Wilson’s value is locked up in turnovers, and interceptions come and go. Lucas could have been cut for reasons other than his salary. 30 isn’t old, but it is old for some. Trufant could be more injured than the team is leading on, or this could be the first in one of those injury waves that kills a year of about every player’s career. So, to complete a continuing theme, there’s talent for more and potential for less, but "B" expresses the union of those factors, and "B" best expresses the most likely performance by Seattle’s corner’s in 2009.

Arizona Cardinals
Blogger: cgolden
For the first time that I can ever remember the Arizona Cardinals boast two above average starting corner backs that could, with any pass rush, be borderline dominant. Promising sophomore Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had his ups and downs last year but by seasons end he became the team's best cover man and one of the fan's favorite young stars. He's possesses the size, athleticism and ball skills to be as good as any corner in the league but he'll have to continue to grow as a defender who with his head instead of relying on natural ability. Too often last year DRC was burned with double moves or play action passes and he was one of the worst run defenders at the corner back position in the league. He improved in some of those areas as the season progressed and he gained experience but in order for the Cardinals secondary to make the kind of improvements that are needed, they need DRC to play at Pro Bowl level this season.

The Cardinals free agent splash was signing bizzaro-DRC, Bryant McFadden. McFadden isn't an uber-athletic corner or weak against the run, in fact he's basically the exact opposite. No other corner in the NFL performed as well against the run than McFadden last year and his physicality also transfers over to his style of coverage. While he a decent athlete, he's not a burner so instead he tries to knock receivers off their routes and disrupt the timing of opposing passing games. As with some players who prefer the physical style, he's struggled to stay healthy throughout his career but when he's healthy he's been a force and he's young enough (27) to believe that his best days are still ahead of him.

Once you get past the Cardinals top two corners though, the question marks start popping up. First, how much will Antrel Rolle drop down to nickel corner this year? Can the veteran Ralph Brown parlay last season's late success into an entire season as the Cardinals nickel corner? How quickly can fourth round pick Greg Toler get acclimated to the speed of the NFL? Does tiny-man Michael Adams even fit in the mix?

The biggest wild card in the secondary is where Antrel Rolle plays when the opposing offense goes three wide because last year he spent some time at nickel corner, some time around the line of scrimmage and some time as the actual free safety. During camp he's still been dropping down to the corner back in some passing situations and some will say that the team drafted Rashad Johnson (former Alabama free safety) so that Rolle could move around in the nickel and dime defenses. Ralph Brown is the next corner on the depth chart and he's basically the savvy veteran who get's by on sub-par athletic ability but a very good understanding of the game. He doesn't have great size but he understands opposing offenses and can bait quarterbacks into bad decisions. In a limited role he seems fairly adequate but any scenario that includes him as a starter would seemed destined for failure. Greg Toler is an athletic rookie that the Cards are hoping cut from the same mold as DRC (good size, athleticism and from a tiny school), but he's extremely raw and would be best served by a season spent on special teams units. Last but not least is Michael Adams, a tiny (5-8, 181) corner with a massive heart, who has basically been a special teams player up to this point. If he were to see time at corner, I'm sure other teams would just throw over the top of him to any receiver over six foot tall but Adams isn't afraid to stick his nose in the mix on running plays and he's made quite a name for himself as a gunner on special teams. His nickname should really be "Rudy."

Overall the Cardinals depth chart at corner is pretty top heavy. DRC and McFadden have the potential to be one of the better duo's in the league, if they can get any help from the pass rush. Behind them though is a bevy of question marks. I feel split between an A (for starters) and a C (for depth) so we'll split the difference and go with a B.

San Francisco 49ers
Blogger: Fooch
The 49ers cornerbacks are all over the place.  They've got veteran experience, youthful potential, and some unreached potential mixed in.  At this point I'm willing to give them a C because there is too much talent to go lower, but the production hasn't matched the talent so I'm not able to go much higher at this point.

Nate Clements is the #1 cornerback at this point and probably for the near future.  Given the large contract he signed in 2007, he's been in the spotlight from day 1.  He's had games where he shuts down the opposition and he's had games where he gets destroyed.  I've read that some scouts think he still has technique problems even though he's entering his ninth season.  At this point I'm willing to live with the fact that he'll never be the Champ Bailey type of shut down corner.  However, I do think he is sufficiently talented to take care of business as the #1 guy for the 49ers.  Some help at the free safety position could also provide him with help in coverage.

As of a few months ago Walt Harris was relatively entrenched as the #2 cornerback.  A blown ACL later and the team went out and signed Dre Bly to compete for the #2 job.  His opposition was Tarell Brown, a 5th round pick in the 2007 draft.  Brown's draft stock fell due to some police issues that seem now to have been a matter of wrong palce wrong time.  In two seasons with SF he's had zero problems.  He's slowly seen his playing time increase and went into 2009's training camp with a good chance at winning the #2 job.  Unfortunately a toe injury on the first day of camp has kept him out of practice.  Dre Bly hasn't exactly run away with the #2 position in Brown's absence, so if he can get back soon he could still win that job.  Dre Bly had a rather abysmal 2008 campaign, but in chatting with Broncos fans, while some of it has to do with Bly's own talent, he also was being utilized in a system that didn't allow him to use his aggressiveness.  He'll get that chance with the 49ers, so we'll see how much talent there really is and how over the hill he might be.

The two primary backups after that are Shawntae Spencer and Marcus Hudson.  Spencer was a late second round pick in 2004 and has never really matched the potential due in large part to a rash of injuries.  At this point, he's most effective as the #3 corner, getting most of his playing time in the nickel defense.  If he can stay healthy, he would likely be down to 4th in the depth chart, which I think gives the 49ers a nice level of depth at the position.  Marcus Hudson is a guy who somehow hangs onto a job without blowing anybody away.  Beyond that the 49ers are just rolling out camp bodies.

I'd probably go a grade lower if not for the depth they have at the position.  While it's not spectacular depth, it's still a mix of good and decent talent 1-4, thus the grade of C.  I actually think the performance of Dashon Goldson in center field could go a long way towards improving the 49ers cornerbacks.

Blogger: VanRam
Outside of wide receiver, there's no position where the Rams evoke more head-scratching than at cornerback.

On top the depth chart they've got Ron Bartell, a very good, underrated CB. Bartell almost hit the free agent market this year, disgruntled with the Rams former front office for not trying to get a deal done earlier. The new regime showered him with love and lured him back to the team with a solid contract that was still well below what he might have been paid as a free agent in the always crazy market for corners. What exactly did the team say? Who knows as far as persuasion goes. They did tell Bartell that his solid work in man coverage made him the team's top corner. They also probably told him that his speed and physical style of play made him a good fit for the new defensive system's demands for CBs to jam receivers and the line and then stick close on the routes. They also told him that he's part of the team's leadership cadre now, being one of the more expereinced players on the defense and the most experienced among the cornerbacks. Bartell will match up against team's top receivers this year.

Behind Bartell it gets a little foggy. Former first round pick Tye Hill is trying hard to avoid the bust label after injuries, lost confidence and a poor coaching situation that often left Rams d-backs confused as to where to play or who to cover. Jonathan Wade is a solid depth guy who has seen plenty of time at nickel and filling in for starters. Probably not a guy you want as one of your top two CBs for 16 games. This year's third round pick Bradley Fletcher is a big, physical kid from Iowa, and more than one draft pundit was surprised by the pick. Not all of them were, and that group has seen enough in camp so far to think that this might be a steal for a third round pick. Justin King, a speedy Penn State product who might have been a first round pick had he not graduated in three years, made a big impression on people in camp last year. Then he got hurt and missed the entire season. He's having a good camp, responding well to the defense and earning time with the first team.

Quincy Butler looked like a classic camp body when the Rams signed him in the middle of last season. Now, he's blowing everyone away with a great camp. It looks like the big, physical Butler has finally found a system suited to him. Having a head coach who used to coach some really good d-backs with the Eagles once upon a time certainly doesn't hurt. Butler still has to prove he's not an August wonder. If he does look good in the preseason and makes the final cut, he could be another feather in Billy Devaney's well-adorned cap of successful role players signed off the scrap heap. Relative unknowns Cord Parks and Marcus Brown round out the list of players trying out for the open jobs on the Rams depth chart.

Like so many units with the Rams this season, this is a group long on potential but mostly barren of results, so far. I'll give the group a C.

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