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Cornerbacks: Long look back, brief look forward

We've taken care of the safeties, so now seemed as good a time as any to take a look at the 49ers cornerback position. The 49ers have some talented players at the cornerback position, but the past year has seen a ton of fluctuation in the rotation of players. At this point last year, Nate Clements and Walt Harris were the starting corners, Shawntae Spencer was recovering from a torn ACL week 2 of 2008, and Tarell Brown was getting more and more time as a nickel back. Fast forward to training camp: Walt Harris tore his ACL (likely ending his 49ers career) and Dre Bly was signed as a free agent.

By the end of training camp, Bly had supplanted Tarell Brown as the #3 corner, but Shawntae Spencer had actually earned the starting spot opposite Nate Clements in a move that caught many of us off guard. By season's end, Shawntae Spencer was arguably the best corner on the team. At varying points, Nate Clements was demoted to the #3 corner/punt returner and Tarell Brown began starting. Then, after Nate Clements went down with a broken scapula, Dre Bly took Tarell Brown's starting job, and Brown was reduced to the nickel back role. Throughout all of this, Marcus Hudson bounced around in his usual backup role in primarily six DB situations.

After the jump we'll take a look at the season of each of the 49ers cornerbacks and look ahead to the numerous issues the team will have to address including the roles of Nate Clements and Tarell Brown.

Nate Clements

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Nate Clements 7 0 0 1 8 0 30 5 35

Although Nate Clements was benched at one point, and finished the season injured, I list him first because the biggest questions at this position would seem to surround him. Clements has borne the burden of a contract that appears much larger than it really is. In his brief time with the 49ers I can say with great confidence that he has been phenomenal in stopping the run. I remain convinced he's one of the best cornerbacks in the league when it comes to making open field tackles on running backs. And more importantly, I don't think he gets nearly enough credit for it.

Unfortunately, this ability was overshadowed in 2009 by his struggles against the pass, the primary role of a cornerback. He certainly wasn't awful, but he definitely struggled this season. He struggled so much that the 49ers decided to go with Tarell Brown as the starting left corner against the prolific Indianapolis Colts' passing attack. Even though the team said it was because of the Colts use of smaller receivers, it was a testament to where he was in the eyes of the organization.

The question now is what to do with him Nate Clements in 2010. Although his contract is not as outlandish as it seemed at first glance, the 49ers have to decide whether he's worth keeping around if he can't hold onto his job at cornerback. Is he going to move to safety? Is he going to stick at corner? And if so, is it as a nickel back, or does it depend on what he can do in training camp? Do they re-negotiate his contract? Cap space really is not an issue at this point (even with a new CBA), but money's money and the team doesn't want to pay a player that isn't going to provide enough of a contribution. I remain a fan of Clements in part because of his tenacious tackling skills. But it's a tough call what the team does with him. I really think it's anybody's guess

Shawntae Spencer

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Shawntae Spencer 16 0 0 2 2 0 49 4 53

If I had to pick one guy who was the most pleasant surprise in 2009, it would have to be Shawntae Spencer. Prior to this season, Spencer dealt with countless injury issues, culminating in him missing almost all of the 2008 season after tearing his ACL in week 2. He arrived in training camp this past season without much fanfare and I really wasn't expecting much more from him than maybe the #3 or #4 cornerback role. On July 30, I posted a look at training camp battles after the first turn and had Spencer listed as a long shot. Well, shows how smart I am. Spencer came on strong and stunned everybody by taking the starting right cornerback position.

Not only did Spencer take that job, but he held onto it all season providing some quality shutdown defense on that side of the field numerous times. More importantly than that? He played in all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season. Are you kidding me? Where did this come from? Over the past couple years I figured he was settling into a nickelback role and that's where he'd be best suited. However, after this past season, it's safe to say he'll head into the 2010 season as the 49ers #1 cornerback. We'll see how he responds to the challenge of being "the man."

The question with Spencer is whether he can provide a level of consistency at the position. After all, injuries had derailed his career up until last season. Is it a case of a guy just finally getting healthy and we can expect that going forward? Or will we always be walking on egg-shells with Spencer? I hope it's the former, but I suppose we'll just have to take it one day at a time.

Dre Bly

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Dre Bly 14 1 10 3 66 0 26 3 29

I think it's safe to say Dre Bly's season with the 49ers was a bit of a roller coaster. The lowest point had to be his interception against the Falcons where he started showboating and then was stripped of the ball by Roddy White. In one of the strongest signs of Coach Singletary's sway on this team, Bly was in front of the media apologizing the next day. The company line was that Dre wanted to make it right, but I'm not sure many of us buy into that entirely. Coach Singletary doesn't take any bull on this team and that was further proof of it.

Although Bly is getting up their in age, he actually had a fairly solid season for the 49ers. He was burned on occasion, but he showed he still has some solid moves. Given the 49ers injury issues with Walt Harris, and then with Nate Clements, he filled in admirably. He signed a 1-year contract hoping to parlay a solid season into a final multi-year deal. At this point it wouldn't surprise me if somebody bit and gave him that kind of deal. I feel fairly comfortable stating it will not be the 49ers. He was a good one year option, but that's about it for this team. If they could get him back for another 1-year deal, would it be worth it?

Tarell Brown

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Tarell Brown 13 0 0 2 52 0 34 6 40

Tarell Brown is a tough guy to discuss at this point. He slipped in the 2007 draft due to character issues, but has always been considered a talented cornerback. After being slowly brought along in his rookie season, Brown was given a much more expanded role in 2008 and showed signs of some serious talent, finishing with a pair of interceptions. After Walt Harris went down with his ACL injury, Brown was arguably the favorite to land the starting right cornerback job heading into training camp, and probably the guy the 49ers wanted to win it. Then he sprained his toe the first day of camp and Bly and Spencer took the lead in the race, with Spencer winning out.

After recovering from the toe injury, Brown worked his way back to the top of the heap and was eventually promoted ahead of Nate Clements to become the starting left cornerback. All seemed well until he was burned badly against the Packers. Dre Bly supplanted him in the starting lineup for the final month or so of the season, although Brown still saw plenty of playing time. Nonetheless, it had to be a disappointing season given the high expectations entering training camp.

Assuming Tarell Brown can stay healthy, one of the biggest training camp battles would have to be Brown vs. Nate Clements for the #2 cornerback position, with Tarell Brown being the early front-runner. I don't expect the 49ers to be looking at a big time CB in free agency, but maybe they make a run at somebody in the draft. If that's the case, maybe that guy makes this a 3-way battle? Or at the very least, gives the 49ers an option for down the road when they unload Nate Clements (be that this year or a year or two from now). How do the 49ers resolve this situation?

Marcus Hudson

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Marcus Hudson 12 0 0 0 0 0 17 4 21

I suppose they could always give the job to Marcus Hudson. Right? Anybody? Hudson quietly continued in his role as a special teams player and dime back. Even with injuries to other players Hudson has never been able to break through into a more prominent role, even as much as a primary nickel back. Hudson is in the class of players that will be a restricted free agent without a new CBA. I'd imagine the 49ers will probably tender him at the bare minimum just to give him a chance in camp.

In our stay or go post most people were arguing for him to go, which certainly makes sense given his minimal contribution. Given that the team might be able to get him back for a cheap 1-year deal, I expect him in camp (although he might not last all of camp). If a new CBA gets done in time for him to be an unrestricted free agent, I don't see him sticking around.

Keith Smith

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Keith Smith 3 0 0 0 0 0 5
0 5

Keith Smith was signed by the 49ers in early November when Nate Clements went down with his shoulder injury. Smith never saw much action and was released shortly before the end of the season. Someone from reported on their twitter page that Smith had been signed to a futures contract as of earlier today. Nothing official has gone out, so we'll have to wait and see. But even if the signing has actually happened, it's not a big impact move at this point. He is a talented player but he's never done much with that talent. For now he's no more than a camp body who might provide some depth way down the chart.

Looking Forward

Free Agency

There are some talented cornerbacks on the market, but if the 49ers are going invest big money in a free agent, I'm not seeing it happening at the cornerback position. It certainly wouldn't hurt the team, but as always, they have bigger needs. Nonetheless, here are some of the notable free agents out there.

Leigh Bodden - New England Patriots
Dunta Robinson - Houston Texans
Carlos Rogers (RFA/UFA) - Washington Redskins
Richard Marshall (RFA/UFA) - Carolina Panthers
Tramon Williams (RFA) - Green Bay Packers

2010 NFL Draft

It would appear as though day 2 of the draft (rounds 2 and 3 this year) could see a whole bunch of corners coming off the board. Given that the 49ers are arguably in a relative position of strength (having some decent options but always looking for more), we'll see if they take a stab at one of these guys with one of their first four picks. I think there are other needs that should be addressed first, but cornerback could certainly get some help in this draft.

Overall Rank Cornerbacks School
Joe Haden Florida
Patrick Robinson Florida State
Syd'Quan Thompson California
Devin McCourty Rutgers
Dominique Franks Oklahoma
Kareem Jackson Alabama
Donovan Warren Michigan
Perrish Cox Oklahoma State
Jerome Murphy South Florida
Brandon Ghee Wake Forest
Trevard Lindley Kentucky
Javier Arenas Alabama
Kyle Wilson Boise State
Amari Spievey Iowa
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah Indiana (PA)
Alterraun Verner UCLA
Myron Lewis Vanderbilt
Brian Jackson Oklahoma
Jamar Wall Texas Tech
Devin Ross Arizona
Stephan Virgil Virginia Tech
Joshua Moore Kansas State
Walter Thurmond Oregon
Chris Hawkins LSU
Chris Cook Virginia
Sherrick McManis Northwestern
Patrick Stoudamire Western Illinois
David Pender Purdue