For a while there it seemed like this aspect of San Francisco's defense was going to be a major liability heading into the 2011 season. While, that is still a distinct possibility the addition of Carlos Rogers stabilizes it to some extent.
The 49ers are still looking at internal options to fill that #2 corner position and I doubt they look to the free agent/trade market to fill the hole.
So, where do they stand at this position with the preseason opener just a couple of days away?
Carlos Rogers has been brought in to replace Nate Clements as the #1 corner. I believe it is etched in stone that he will occupy the responsibility of covering the other teams #1 wide receiver, so I will focus on other players battling for the #2 corner and nickel positions.
Shawntae Spencer: Like most of the 49ers secondary Spencer regressed a great deal in 2010 and I am not sold on him as the #2 corner when camp breaks. Spencer jumped on to the scene as a rookie in 2004, starting 12 games and surprising people with his coverage ability. The following season he was among the NFLs best cover corners in terms of passes defended with 19. The future for the former Pitt Panther couldn't have looked brighter.
After struggling a great deal in 2006, the injury bug hit Spencer and he would only play in 13 games over the course of the next two seasons. Since returning, Spencer has been a below average starting corner in the NFL. He was burnt a great deal during the 2011 season and looked lost at times.
At this point it is too much to expect for Spencer to return to pre-injury form. He has lost a step and continues to have mental lapses in terms of coverage. San Francisco would be much more confident if they had a true #2 corner that would move Spencer inside to the nickel.
Chris Culliver: There is no question in my mind that Culliver has the ability to be a starting corner in the NFL. His skill set fits that position to a tee. He enjoys playing bump and run, while getting into the receivers face before the five yard rule takes effect. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Culliver played aggressively as a safety during his first two seasons at South Carolina.
There are going to be tremendous learning curves for Culliver heading into the NFL. He needs to refine a technique that seems to allow him to get turned around on quick outs and short passes. Culliver's aggressive play could also come back to haunt him as a rookie.
What I like is the fact that he plays with an aura of confidence on the field; something that every top flight corner needs. From watching tape on Culliver following the draft, I noticed that he is always around the ball and doesn't allow the receiver to get open in space. This means that he is better suited to play outside as the #2 corner, rather than inside as a nickel. You are going to see some struggles from him this season, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Culliver takes over the #2 corner spot when camp breaks, or shortly after that. Simply put, he is more likely to succeed on the outside than Spencer.
Tarell Brown: I really don't know what to make of Brown. He had a great opportunity leading up to the 2010 season to become a bigger part of San Francisco's secondary, but failed miserably. If other players step up behind Brown, his roster spot may be in peril. That is how much Brown's stock has dropped in my mind over the last year or so.
After starting four games and recording two interceptions in 2009, Brown regressed a great deal last season. He didn't start one game, lost his nickel job for a while, and ended up having his worse season as a pro. There were many issues that led to this regression, but the main thing I saw was his lack of ability to make quick plays on the ball and stay with the receiver. Too often, Brown was burned on slant routes and left completely in the dust. His tackling was also horrid in 2010.
I haven't heard many good words about Brown's training camp performance either. It seems that this regression has continued and he is on the verge of being left off the 53 man roster. A possibly sad conclusion to a 49er career that started with so much upside.
Phillip Adams: His gruesome season ending injury against St. Louis in week 16 is by now well documented. Up to that point, Adams showed a lot of ability on special teams and started to see the field more on defense. The little known prospect from South Carolina State surprised the coaching staff with his quick transition from small school stud to the NFL. However, the injury set him back a great deal because he was forced to rehab instead of focusing on advancing technique.
There hasn't been a whole lot said about Adams during training camp, he is pretty much off the radar at this point; which is extremely surprising. I am not sure if he is completely heeled from the injury, or what is happening. However, I want to see him in preseason action and make a further assessment from there. Either way, I would say his roster spot is safe at this point.
Tramaine Brock: He transferred from Minnesota to little known, Belhaven College following the 2008 season. Prior to the transfer Brock was a standout in the Gopher secondary. He recorded 73 tackles, 3 forced fumbles and an interception in 2008. Brock, then a safety, would have been an NFL draft pick in 2009 but decided to transfer instead of entering the draft. He left Minnesota for academic reasons.
Fast forward a year, and he was in the San Francisco 49er training camp an impressing former coach Mike Singletary, with exceptional ball defense skills and athleticism. He recorded six tackles and a game clinching interception in the preseason finally last season. This earned Brock a spot on the 53 man roster.
He has the ability in man coverage to take away a receiver, it is now all about Brock putting it all together in a game situation and building off of what has been an extremely solid last year of play making in practice. I can honestly see Brock, after another solid training camp, not only making the roster but vying for time as the nickel back.
CB- Phillip Davis: Rookie Undrafted Free Agent From Tulane
2010 Stats: 29 Tackles, 3 INT
CB- Corey Nelms: Rookie Undrafted Free Agent from Florida
2010 Stats: 6 Tackles
Analysis: The biggest competition will be for the #2 corner and nickel spots. Shawntae Spencer, despite below average play in 2010, has the inside track for the starting spot opposite Carlos Rogers. He has the experience as a starter and brings more maturity to the game. However, it isn't etched in stone that Spencer will be the starter when camp breaks. Chris Culliver is quickly closing the gap between himself and Spencer. Whoever loses that battle will probably be in line to be the nickel back and cover the slot receiver. Culliver seems to play better in the open field as evidenced by his play at safety in college, so this further narrows the gap between himself and Spencer.
Sometimes, it isn't about who the better player is. Instead, it is all about where to play each individual so that their talents are utilized in the best possible manner. Culliver plays better in open space and Spencer seems to be better in the slot. So, the decision could just come down to logistics at this point.
The other competition will be for the final two corner spots on the 53 man roster. Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock and Tarell Brown will be vying for those two spots. I think it is safe to say that we saw enough from Adams last season in order to conclude that he has a spot on the roster. So, the final spot will go to either Brock or Brown. My personal opinion is that Brock beats Brown out for that prized roster spot. He has more of an upside than Brown, costs less money, is younger and fits what San Francisco is attempting to build. Brock could also be utilized in special teams, something that Harbaugh suggests will be a determining factor in deciding who makes the roster or not. The combination of those factors above lead me to believe that Brown will be the odd man out unless San Francisco decides to keep six corners.
My Corner Depth Chart
1. Carlos Rogers
2. Shawntae Spencer
3. Chris Culliver
4. Phillip Adams
5. Tramaine Brock
6. Tarell Brown