There has been a lot of talk about the 49ers cornerback situation. Reports have surfaced that Nate Clements may not be on the team once the lockout ends. Some of this could be pure speculation at this point, but if he doesn't take a pay cut it is likely San Francisco will cut ties.
So where does that leave the 49ers at that position? Extremely young, inexperienced and relatively weak. This if San Francisco decides not to retain Clements or opts against replacing him with a veteran. The good news is that there is an abundance of options for San Francisco in the free agent market.
Nnamdi Asomugha: Obviously the shutdown corner is the cream of this years free agent crop. However, there are a lot of issues in regards to the possibility of him joining San Francisco. First, there are going to be at least a dozen teams interested in Nnamdi, which will drive up the price. I doubt the 49ers get into a bidding contest for the 30 year old corner. Secondly, as mentioned he is 30 years old. The expectation is that he will get a 5-6 year contract, which could draw San Francisco away from him. Finally, Nnamdi is going to get between 12-15MM, which might price him out of San Francisco. I highly doubt the 49ers sign Nnamdi, but I can guarantee they have had internal discussions about the prospect.
Johnathan Joseph: There have been several reports that Joseph wants to return to Cincinnati, however, some seem to think the chances of that happening aren't great. Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer puts the prospects at between 35-40 percent.
Joseph is the second best corner in the free agent market, so he is going to get a lot of play. You are looking at a six or seven year contract averaging over 10MM per season. Is that too high of a price for a player that has never been selected to the Pro Bowl? Some might tend to thing so. However, I do believe that Joseph has a chance to be a real shutdown corner, if he isn't already. My personal opinion is that Joseph ends up in either Washington or Tampa Bay, not San Francisco.
Antonio Cromartie: He seems like a more realistic target for San Francisco, but is he going to price himself out of the market? Cromartie's biggest fan at this point is himself, and there seems to be a great deal of character issues in regards to him. However, you cannot deny the talent he has. Cromartie is a true #1 corner on a good team and will get paid like that. I don't think you are looking at him getting 10MM per season, so his contract could be affordable for San Francisco. It would be a situation of replacing Clements not teaming up with him
Carlos Rogers: He was a shutdown corner for the first five years of his career, but struggled big time under a new scheme in 2010. Rogers has the ability to regain that form and is still relatively young. There are indications that San Francisco will have conversations with Rogers once free agency begins. If the 49ers do sign a top tier corner my money is on Rogers. He has an incredibly high ceiling and would be an immediate upgrade over Nate Clements. However, there is a scenario in which Rogers is brought in to team up with Clements and push Spencer down to the nickel position; that would be the ideal scenario moving forward.
Ike Taylor: He has stepped it up big time since struggling a great deal in 2009, however, a lot of people close to Pittsburgh seem to believe that Taylor isn't worth #1 corner money. There is going to be stiff competition for his services in free agency, it is unlikely that Pittsburgh will get into bidding war for Taylor, that isn't their MO.
I think that Taylor's value has been overestimated around the league and once free agency starts it will go back down to earth. You are looking at a 31 year old corner that hasn't been incredibly consistent over the years. I fully expect San Francisco to make a play if his price goes down to about 5-6MM, which is likely in my opinion.
Richard Marshall: Like many Carolina Panthers last season, Marshall struggled a great deal in 2010. There is no doubt in my mind that he wont be retained by Carolina. Sources indicate that he is extremely unhappy with their unwillingness to sign him to an extension during the 2010 season. Like Cromartie, it is possible that Marshall prices himself out of the market and may have to settle for a lesser deal.
However, there is a lot of money that is going to be thrown around when free agency starts next weekend, so he might get that huge deal; I really doubt it though. Marshall is not a #1 corner in the NFL, but wants to be paid like one; this is a major issue in my opinion. Plus, I don't really see Marshall as much of an upgrade over Nate Clements. There is a possibility that he could be brought in to join Nate Clements in the starting lineup.
Chris Carr: He really surprised the Baltimore Ravens last season and took over as their #1 corner. I think he projects as a possible shutdown player moving forward. But, for some reason the Ravens don't seem to look at Carr as even a starting corner, so he will not be back there. I think that San Francisco will make a play for him this off-season if they are unable to obtain a top tier corner. Realistically, he could be a nice under the radar addition to the 49ers roster. If San Francisco does make a play for Carr it would be to join, not replace Clements.
Josh Wilson: Another surprise for the Baltimore Ravens, but he is more likely than Carr to return. Baltimore also seems to be higher on Wilson than they are on Carr, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I am not a huge fan of Wilson's and don't believe he would even be an upgrade over Shawntae Spencer at this point
Chris Houston: After initially struggling with the Atlanta Falcons early in his career, Houston had a breakout 2011 season after being traded to the Detroit Lions. He projects more as a #2 corner and will get paid that way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with San Francisco looking to upgrade at that position this off-season. A CB rotation that consists of Nate Clements, Chris Houston and Shawntae Spencer wouldn't be the end of the world. Houston does remain a strong possibility for San Francisco because he would be affordable at about 4-5MM.
Eric Wright: His 2010 season was so bad that Wright received death threats for Cleveland Browns fans; talk about taking football a little to seriously. However, you have to look at the sum of all parts in regards to Wright. He has incredible physical talent and could be a real steal this off-season. I think San Francisco will kick around the idea of bringing Wright in as the #2 corner, while retaining Clements.
Other Free Agent Options
Kelly Jennings: Wouldn't be an upgrade over any of San Francisco's top three corners.
Fabian Washington: Injury plagued, but talented. It wouldn't be a smart bet for any team to rely on him
Drayton Florence: Marginal starter at best, pretty god nickel. Would be upgrade over Spencer
Kendric Burney: Have no idea what happened to him, should have been at least a 4th round pick.
Brian Williams; Would be a nice addition as a nickel corner, likely returning to Atlanta
Analysis: I think it is extremely likely that San Francisco pursues a corner in free agency, even if Nate Clements returns at a reduced salary. There have been several indications that they will look to hit the market at that position, and there remains several options.
In regards to Nate Clements, Mike Sando of ESPN told me that Clements "will not be back under current deal" and "Players who take significant paycuts often more willing to do that elsewhere". Well, that seems to fit into what most "experts" are talking about in regards to Clements. This seems to indicate that Clements will not be with San Francisco in 2011.
So, there is absolutely no way that San Francisco goes into the 2011 season with Shawntae Spencer and Tarell Brown as their top two corners with Phillip Adams, Chris Culliver and Curtis Holcomb vying for the nickel slot. That would be an incredible weak cornerback rotation and would cost San Francisco multiple games in 2011. While I am a fan of both Culliver and Holcomb; they are not ready to contribute like that just yet.
I think you are looking at Carlos Rogers, Ike Taylor, Antonio Cromartie and Richard Marshall as the top possibilities for San Francisco when free agency starts. Out of that group I would prefer Cromartie, with Rogers coming in as a cheaper alternative. There does remain a slight possibility that Clements restructures his contract, but that doesn't mean San Francisco will be out of the CB market. They will probably still look to add a veteran as an upgrade over Shawntae Spencer.
Chances that San Francisco acquires a corner has to be at about 75-80 percent in my estimation.