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Cornerbacks: Long look back, brief look forward

An ongoing argument in football (or at least in my own head) is the importance of a pass rush versus the importance of shutdown (or at least great) cornerbacks. If you've got a great pass rush, the QB has to get rid of the ball sooner, meaning wide receivers don't have as much time to run their routes. A team can counter that by running quicker routes or going to the ground game a little more. If you've got a shutdown corner on one side of the field, or a pair of very solid corners in the starting lineup, you can make up for a weaker pass rush.

The 49ers lack a pass rush, and their cornerbacks have a consistency problem that drives me crazy. Nate Clements is the best corner on the team, but even he will slip up on occasion. The 49ers secondary as a whole sometimes appears to be a strength and other times just seems to be plain-awful. Does anybody else have this same sort of frustration?

Nate Clements: Many non-49ers fans hate on Nate Clements because they think he's got a ridiculously large contract and is not worth it. Let's once again make sure people realize a hefty chunk of that is backloaded money he'll never see. Now onto the business at hand. Clements had his down moments, but he remains the best corner on the team. My favorite part of his game is his tackling abilities, which has led some to argue the 49ers should move him to safety. More on that below.

Nate Clements is certainly not the best cover cornerback in the NFL. However, he's shown the ability to step up when facing the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson. TO had a huge day against him, but it was not entirely his fault. He was responsible for some of the big gains, but not all of them (thank you Mark Roman among others). Nonetheless, I'm willing to take the bad with all the good.

Walt Harris: Harris was another guy who was all over the map. He'd get torched numerous times, then bounce back with a great defensive play. A Harris signature play has developed where the receiver has him beat deep by half a step, but the pass is underthrown just enough that Harris can get his hand up and deflect it away. Seems to happen rather often.

One stat I've always found interesting is Football Outsiders' ranking of defenses versus certain types of wide receivers (#1, #2, Other WR, TE, RB). A quick look shows that the 49ers defense performed better against a team's #2 wide receiver than they did against their #1. One argument is that Harris performed better than Clements. Another argument that makes a little more sense is the drop off from the #1 to the #2 receiver. Either way, it's intriguing to consider. Oh and just for the heck of it, the 49ers were 9th on defense against running backs.

Donald Strickland: Just an absolute gamer. As I've said before, Strickland has never been a big name corner and yet he continues to step up for the 49ers in virtually every type of situation. He's filled in for a starter, he's made huge plays as a nickel back; simply put he's not a liability. Even though the 49ers brought in young talent to supplant him, he's hung around. This past season, his two biggest performances were 1) returning the blocked field goal for a touchdown against Philly and 2) filling in for Nate Clements against the Jets. He had five tackles in a game in which the Jets wide receivers were shut down quite nicely.

Tarell Brown: Brown was a 5th round pick in 2007 but was considered a very solid corner. Character concerns after some run-ins with the law hurt him big time. He did not see much playing time his rookie year, but this past season his playing time increased quite a bit due to the season-ending injury to Shawntae Spencer. While Strickland filled a lot of nickel and dime roles, Brown filled in as strictly a nickel back. Although the numbers don't reflect it, Brown seemed to have a very solid season in the secondary.

While most of us are awaiting the free safety competition, the battle for the #2 cornerback spot could be very interesting. Coach Singletary has proven he has no problem relying on rookies (Chilo Rachal) so if Brown can show he's got the goods, he might very well be a starter at some point this season.

Reggie Smith: Smith got a little bit of action his rookie season, primarily on special teams. Briandean made an interesting point in his Seven Rounds of Fury, when he mentioned that Smith lacked the speed of a top-flight corner and would eventually end up at safety. I can certainly see something like that happening. If the team could find a decent speedy corner somewhere in this year's draft to move in behind Tarell Brown, why not work in Smith at safety? If the speed's not there, it's not there, but we'll see how quickly they're willing to pull the trigger on that move. At Oklahoma, of his 36 starts, Smith made 20 at strong safety and 16 at the various cornerback positions (what are field and boundary cornerbacks?)

Due to the length of this post, it continues after the jump...

Shawntae Spencer: Oh hey, ya forgot about this guy, didn't ya? Spencer injured his knee in Week 2 and eventually went on injured reserve. Due to injury issues, Spencer never quite made it as a top-flight corner, but had settled in as a solid option at the nickel role. An interesting issue heading into 2009 is what role he'll have if Tarell Brown can continue to emerge. There is no word, but I'd imagine Spencer will be ready to go in time for the season. An ACL tear is a tough injury so we'll see what kind of game he brings at that point.

Marcus Hudson: Hudson is a guy who can play corner and safety, but has never really established himself on the team. 2008 was his third season in the league and seven weeks on the inactive list really can't be a good thing for the youngster. One interesting note from his player profile, at NC State, Hudson started his career at cornerback, but his junior season he switched to free safety. Maybe we'll see Hudson in the round-robin competition for Mark Roman's job.

Looking Forward
Mike Singletary made it clear that free safety was a position of need heading into the offseason. I mention it here because the 49ers have some guys who could conceivably transition into that position battle this summer. Either way, the 49ers are in need of help at safety. There is some quality talent in the draft and some folks have argued for the 49ers taking Malcolm Jenkins with the #10 pick if he's around. Personally, I'd rather look at just about any other position and let Tarell Brown get his crack at it, but maybe that's just me.

On the free agent front, I'm sure plenty of folks would loooooove a guy like Nnamdi Asomugha. I think we can all agree that is NOT going to happen anytime soon. There are some other talented folks like Terrence Newman and Dunta Robinson, but I don't see the price as being right with those folks. If I'm looking for depth I'd just as soon take my chances in the draft (beyond the first round).