Here at Niners Nation, we're presenting a series called "90-in-90". We'll be looking at every player on the 49ers offseason roster, one player per post, from now until the start of training camp.
As we have discussed the cornerback position battle, the debate has centered on Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Culliver. Rogers, Brown and Culliver handled a vast majority of the snaps last season, while Nnamdi is the high profile addition, competing for a starting job. It is logical that those four would dominate the conversation.
And yet, it is easy to overlook Perrish Cox. The 49ers signed Cox last offseason, and he ended up handling the dime cornerback role. Cox sat out the 2011 season, as he was dealing with a sexual assault case and found himself waived by the Broncos at the end of 2011 training camp. A year ago March, after an acquittal in his court case, Cox signed a two-year deal with the 49ers.
No matter how young and what kind of shape one might be in, missing a year of football is not a simple matter to overcome. To me, it says something about Cox's natural talent that he worked his way into a contributing role with the 49ers defense, ahead of Tramaine Brock.
There has never been a question about Cox's raw skills. Coming out of college in 2010, the scouting report was impressive when it came to his physical tools. He had good game speed, he could stay on receivers in and out of routes, he could get physical, and he had good ball skills. He ran a 4.58 40, but the reports seem to indicate he is faster in pads and facing receivers. The problem for Perrish Cox has always been "Perrish Cox". He has managed to keep his nose clean since the sexual assault trial, but his time at Oklahoma State did not result in the cleanest of backgrounds.
Cox finished the 2012 season with 160 defensive snaps, which was 15.1% of defensive snaps available. He also took part in 113 special teams snaps, which was 25.39% of special teams snaps available. What is noteworthy about his defensive snaps is that 55 of those snaps (34.4%) took place in the team's opener against the Packers. The 49ers played an extensive amount of dime, with one of Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman on the field. After that first game, Cox got 32 snaps against the Cardinals, and then no more than 11 in any other regular season game. He would end up with 19 int he 49ers playoff rematch with the Packers.
In his extensive Week 1 work against the Packers, you could see some of the raw skills, but you could also see some of the question marks about converting those skills. He was lined up primarily against either Jermichael Finley or Randall Cobb. When he had to go deep down the field he did solid work keeping with his man. His problem came on the shorter routes as he did not take advantage of the first five yards of physicality. He seemed to play a little too passive.
Additionally, he struggled at times on zone coverage, giving up a touchdown on one such play. Whether it was not knowing his own assignment, or miscommunication with someone else, it is something that good coaching could help improve. And in researching old scouting reports, it seems like good coaching is what he needed most coming out of college. He's now had a full year in the 49ers system, so we'll see what training camp brings for Cox.
How he could improve in 2013
I think Cox could very well be a sleeper in this cornerback competition. If he can take to Ed Donatell's coaching, I could see him getting more opportunities in a nickel role. Carlos Rogers is the current nickel cornerback, but I think Cox brings more athleticism to the position. With some incredibly dynamic slot receivers on the 49ers schedule, Cox has the tools to stick with them. But he has to convert those skills into production. If he can do that, I could see him starting the season in that dime back role, but eventually surpassing Rogers on the depth chart at nickel back.
The 49ers have enough salary cap question marks that they could decide to part ways with Rogers after this season. It is certainly not a lock, but it is one option for them. If Cox can show some improvement from last year, they might be amenable to inserting him as their primary nickel back moving forward either at some point this coming season, or full time in 2014.
How he could regress in 2013
Cox could very well continue to struggle when it comes to some of the mental aspects of the cornerback position. Physical talent is great, but it takes more than just speed and athleticism to find success in the NFL. I don't think regression necessarily means he gets worse. If he does not improve, that can be considered a regression of his talent in my mind. Like Coach Harbaugh says, you're either getting better or you're getting worse. In a league where careers can be quite limited, if you don't improve in a given year, you are losing time and wasting talent.
Odds of making the roster in 2013
The cornerback position is much more loaded in 2013, which makes it more difficult for guys like Perrish Cox, Tramaine Brock, and of course the slew of rookie corners. If Nnamdi makes the roster, I think we could see Cox and Brock in a fight for a roster spot. The 49ers kept five cornerbacks at the end of training camp last year, and I don't see any reason for more this year.
Brock was a significant part of the 49ers special teams in 2012 (282 snaps, 63.4% of snaps), but given the struggles of those units, that might not necessarily lock him into a spot. I think Cox is the favorite between these two to earn a roster spot.