We continue working up to our full 53-man roster projection by taking a look at the 49ers cornerback position. To date we've discussed we've discussed the quarterbacks, the running backs, the fullbacks, and the safeties. The 49ers secondary has a lot of talent, but also has it's fair share of potential question marks. Part of the issue in assessing the quality of the cornerbacks is the issue of the pass rush. On the one hand, the 49ers defense accumulated a fairly large number of sacks in 2009, but on the other hand, it seemed like there were extended stretches of time when the opposing quarterback had way too much time to wait for the cornerbacks to finally lose their man. In assessing the cornerbacks as a whole, how do you assess their general ability?
In looking over the roster, the 49ers have a bundle of cornerbacks that will be battling in training camp. The team went with five cornerbacks on their opening 53-man roster, not including Allen Rossum. There is some solid talent, and even the veteran free agents they team added (Paymah, James, Smith) all bring a little something to the table. Ideally, a guy like Phillip Adams would bust through and give the team a reason to keep him off the practice squad.
The other guy worth noting, LeRoy Vann, is one of the more intriguing options given his abilities in the return game. He's on the bubble of the roster, in part because he might need to prove himself sufficiently capable at cornerback. Allen Rossum never really got on the field as a cornerback during his time with the 49ers outside of practice. However, he was also among the all-time leaders in return yards, so the team had no problem cutting him some slack. Vann on the other hand, is a rookie with a lot of talent who has not proven thing one at the NFL level. We'll see what he can do in training camp.
After the jump though, we take a look at the man who inspires plenty of debate here at Niners Nation...
There are certain guys on the 49ers that get the fans riled up fairly easily. Michael Lewis is one of those guys, and among the cornerbacks, Nate Clements is another of those guys. Some folks will ride these guys into the ground and are convinced the 49ers should be getting rid of them as soon as possible. They consider them washed up and finished. For a guy like Clements, I'd imagine his large contract makes him easy fodder for the haters.
I'm certainly not saying people should be falling all over themselves in support of the guy, but I do think there's still a decent amount left in the tank. He's not and never will be an absolute shut-down corner like Champ Bailey or Nnamdi Asomugha. While he certainly is getting paid plenty, I remain convinced he brings plenty to the table and is a strong asset in the 49ers starting line, as a cornerback. I would certainly like to see Tarell Brown step up in training camp and completely surpass him on the depth chart. At the same time, if it doesn't happen, I'd like to think it's because Clements provides certain essential elements that Brown has not sufficiently developed.
Among other things, he is as strong an open field tackler as there is at the cornerback position. Clements is a monstrous asset in protecting the run, and I would argue that when he was knocked out for the season, the rush defense took a nasty hit going forward. And while he struggles at times in pass coverage, he still can provide help when needed. In fact, some of his biggest games have come against some of the premier wide receivers in the NFL. He's also been burned badly at times, but I think the 49ers get much more positive out of Clements than negative.
The question at this point in time is how he'll recover from his scapula injury. The injury knocked him out in early November and he was unable to return. Since then, much of the discussion has been about moving him to safety. That's quieted with the addition of Taylor Mays, but some folks still trumpet that kind of idea. I'm not saying it won't happen at some point in the future, but I strongly believe 2010 is too soon for that kind of move.
At the end of the day, it'd be fantastic if Tarell Brown could finally take control of the #2 cornerback position. I think Nate Clements would be quite solid as a nickel back. If Brown could gain sufficient confidence from the coaching staff, that would put the 49ers in a position to get younger while also getting cheaper in the secondary. At the same time, I think that if Brown is not able to take that next step in his growth as a cornerback, the 49ers remain in a good position among their top 3 cornerbacks heading into 2010.