The 49ers Cornerback Depth: Who could be the Odd Man Out?

USA TODAY Sports

The recent signing of Nnamdi Asomugha gives the 49ers a nice problem to have. How do they handle a roster with four legitimate starting corners?

There's an old saying in football: "You can never have too many corners." When the 49ers signed former All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, an already deep position became even more crowded. The 49ers now have six corners with a shot at the 53-man roster: Asomugha, Tramaine Brock, Tarell Brown, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver and Carlos Rogers.

While the old adage about never having too many corners remains true, the 49ers are in a unique position with four of their six rostered corners coming off a year during which they saw significant playing time (Asomugha with the Eagles, Brown, Culliver and Rogers with the 49ers). It is unlikely any of the ‘big four' will voluntarily take a backseat leaving the 49ers with a very fortunate problem to solve.

The 49ers defense spent only 30.5% of the time in their base 3-4 (4-3 under) with two corners on the field. Comparatively, they spent 56% of the time in a nickel formation with three corners on the field and 13.5% of the time in a dime formation with four corners on the field. Thank you Pro Football Focus for providing these stats via Twitter.

One can assume that a similar split will occur this year, given the overall change in the offensive landscape with more and more three and four wide receiver sets. So what does this mean for the quartet of established corners? There is only enough playing time to satisfy three of the four. Someone is going to be the odd man out.

Thinking about all the possibilities has left my head spinning. Let's examine some possible scenarios (in no particular order):

Scenario 1: Position battle -- may the best three win.

The 49ers open training camp with all six corners on the roster (and possibly a rookie added via the draft) and allow the players decide who plays. The three corners that perform best in camp and throughout the preseason earn the most regular season playing time.

The fourth would be relegated to special teams or other limited action. This may lead to a rare in-season trade or the odd man out could be released prior to the start of the season, allowing him to seek an alternative team.

A note about drafting a corner:

With six corners on the roster you're probably asking, "WHY would they draft another corner?" Well, when you consider the makeup of the current roster, it's easy to understand why it could still be considered a need.

  • Asomugha is signed to a one-year deal and will again hit free agency in 2014.
  • Rogers is signed through 2015 and is the highest paid corner on the roster. He's scheduled to earn $5.5 million in 2013, $6.25 million in 2014, and $7.25 million in 2015.
  • Brown is only signed through 2013 and will be a free agent in 2014. Another season like last year and he'll be in for a big pay-day.
  • Culliver is still working on his rookie deal and is signed through 2014.
  • Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock are both signed through 2013 and will be free agents in 2014.

Of the six corners, only two are signed beyond this season (Rogers and Culliver). Despite having a glut of corners on the 2013 roster, the 49ers will not be in the same position next year and beyond. They must prepare for the future and have a long-term plan for the cornerback position.

Scenario 2: About that free safety position...

During his introductory press conference, Asomugha was asked about the possibility of moving to free safety given the 49ers current need. After all, Asomugha had spent some time at Cal playing safety before moving exclusively to corner in the NFL.

"No, we haven't talked about safety at all, I'm playing corner" Asomugha said.

Ok, so he admitted he hadn't talked about X's and O's before signing, but then said he's playing corner. I have to wonder how he would respond if asked by Jim Harbaugh and Co. about a switch. At 6'2'', he would bring preferred size to the position although he's never been known much for his tackling ability.

Another possible candidate to move to free safety would be third year corner Chris Culliver. Culliver actually started 24 games at free safety at South Carolina, earning second team All-SEC honors in 2009. Culliver was picked on a lot throughout the playoffs and opposing teams game planned to target the young corner. A move to safety would allow him to use his natural ball skills and instincts in deep half assignments to help create turnovers.

Scenario 2A: Matchups

Of course, a move to safety doesn't have to be permanent. The Niners could use newly signed Craig Dahl or a rookie in at free safety in base formations, then move Culliver or Asomugha to safety in nickel situations. This would allow all four to be on the field over 50% of the time, thereby eliminating the odd man out.

Scenario 3: Trade.

The 49ers might opt to try and trade on of the big four prior to the start of the 2013 season. However, as noted above, Rogers' dead money could be an issue if trying to trade him this season. This would leave Brown and Culliver as the likely tradable pieces. Whether or not the 49ers would be willing to part with either of the two young corners remains to be seen.

Scenario 4: Cut bait.

The 49ers could decide to part ways with one of the four prior to training camp. I only envision this scenario should the 49ers draft a corner in the upcoming NFL draft. Even then, the question of who to axe is quite difficult.

If the Niners were to decide to cut one of the big four, who would it be? Asomugha just signed so it seems that he's safe, at least through the preseason. Brown and Culliver are still young and developing, although Brown could be up for a big pay day and Culliver struggled mightily to close the season. That leaves Carlos Rogers. He makes the most money and he really under-performed last year compared to 2011. He's the cut bait, right?

Not so fast. Consider that Rogers contract contains nearly $6 million in dead money in 2013. This means if he's cut or traded, the 49ers are still on the hook financially either in 2013 or 2014 depending on when he'd be cut or traded. This number decreases by almost half in 2014.

This would be the doomsday scenario. Letting go of a guy that could be an immediate starter on another team is quite unsettling.

Other scenarios that didn't make the cut:

  • Injury -- out for the year. No one wants to think about that, even though it would make things a lot easier.
  • Play almost exclusively in a dime formation. OK ... which Pro Bowl linebacker sits?
  • Split reps equally among all four. This is the NFL folks, not pee-wee. Trophies only go to those that win.

My gut feeling is that either scenario one or two will come to fruition. Logically, if I had to make a call right now I'd say that Asomugha and Brown are your starters with Culliver and Rogers drawing slot duty depending on match up. Culliver on small, quicker guys; Rogers on bigger, strong guys. My hope, however, is that either Asomugha or Culliver move to safety, allowing all four to be on the field at the same time in passing situations.

Are there any other scenarios I missed? Who's going to be the odd man out and how do you handle it?

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