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Review/Preview: 49ers must maintain steady ship amid secondary upheaval

With several anticipated departures and arrivals, the pressure is on the 49ers coaching staff to keep things copacetic in the defensive backfield.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers linebacking corps. (and front seven in general) nab most of the headlines and media attention, but the largely stellar play of the 49ers secondary over the past few years has also been a big key to the team's success. Prior to 2011, the secondary was a veritable sieve. Whether the defense was awful across the board or solid in other areas, the secondary was a constant source of agony for San Francisco dating all the way back to the late 1990's.

When 2011 came around, the Niners turned weakness to strength with the arrival of a new coaching staff and two veteran players with chips on their shoulders: Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner. After a historic 2011 campaign replete with turnovers and drive-halting plays, 2012 was yet another solid outing for the 49ers' secondary, albeit one with some notable slip-ups (namely, the postseason). Last season was a return to form for this unit after a forgettable 2012 postseason performance, evidenced by the following:

2013 Secondary Statistical Snapshot

• 221 yards per game, 7th in the league
• 6.5 yards per reception, 5th in the league
• 19 TD passes allowed, 5th in the league
• 18 INTs, 10th in the league

Beyond the general stats outlined above, opposing quarterbacks only completed 59% of their passes against the 49ers secondary, ranking the team 9th in the NFL. For context, that's the exact same percentage as the vaunted Seattle Seahawk pass defense. During the entire regular season, San Francisco only surrendered a 300+ yard passer three times.

The position group really showed its mettle in 2013; overcoming the departure of Pro-Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson by moving up to draft LSU's Eric Reid. Reid provided a huge return on the team's investment, quickly making fans forget all about Goldson en route to a Pro-Bowl selection. Another preseason concern was the loss of third-year cornerback, Chris Culliver, who went down for the season with an ACL injury in the summer. As a result, Tramaine Brock, who built a reputation for dubious coverage skills, was thrust into a prominent role in Culliver's stead. Much like the good fortune brought by Reid, San Francisco struck gold again. Brock proved to a much improved player, becoming one of the stars of the team's secondary whether it was starting in place of Tarell Brown during injury or when he was inserted for nickel packages.

The 49ers will once again have significant holes to plug in 2014...but even more so this time around.

Despite a solid outing in 2013, Carlos Rogers is due $6.25 million this year; far too much cash for a 33-year old cornerback, especially one whose best days are behind him. Unless Rogers accepts a monumental pay cut, the 49ers will be sending him packing. Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown, who both enjoyed pretty remarkable success last season, will hit the open market and likely garner offers far greater than what the 49ers can offer. Assuming the 49ers have to say goodbye to all three players, the secondary unit will be almost completely transformed from last year. In that scenario, Eric Reid, a second-year player, would be the only incumbent full-time starter returning.

It's important to note that the 49ers are in no way at fault if, indeed, all three players are gone. In an ideal world, they keep either Whitner or Brown to maintain some veteran leadership in the secondary. But with all of the crucial players they need to dedicate significant money in the coming year (see Kaepernick, Colin; Crabtree, Michael; Smith, Aldon), it's just not feasible. It boils down to a question of who's indispensable vs who's dispensable and, unfortunately, the three aforementioned veterans (and the positions they play) take a back seat to players like Kaepernick and Aldon Smith.

The Niners will definitely be looking to address to the cornerback and safety positions in the draft. The question is, in which round? More importantly, where do they look in free agency? Because that's the key, really. Rookie talent is an unknown commodity. Some step in right away and experience great success while others need time to groom. Tarell Brown is a tremendous example of a player who took several seasons before realizing his full potential. Furthermore, it's pretty difficult to groom young talent without a veteran to show them the ropes.

With that said, it will be in the Niners' best interest to pick up a quality veteran free agent as the offseason progresses. Baalke has shown to be incredibly adept at spotting unrealized talent in bad situations; signing on the cheap and watching them flourish in the 49ers' system. Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner are shining examples of that. Although not a secondary player, the team picked up Glenn Dorsey from Kansas City last year and he made spectators forget all about the devastating early-season injury to starter Ian Williams.

Those hoping for a big-name like T.J. Ward are going to be sorely disappointed. If the 49ers had the space for a signing like that, they'd just as soon resign their own. The signings will likely take place after the frenzied onset of free agency has died down. That's when Baalke likes to do his bargain bin shopping. Safety Louis Delmas, whom the 49ers kicked the tires on last offseason before he ultimately resigned with Detroit, is on the market and could draw the team's interest.

If any front office and coaching staff is equipped to handle such turnover at a position group, it's this one. They've anticipated this situation for quite some time and have done all the necessary homework. While the secondary hasn't been as highly touted as the front seven, the unit has still done a great job; especially when you consider all the pressure placed on them in Vic Fangio's infamous "rush four" scheme. Leadership is a significant intangible and the void resulting from the possible departures of Whitner and Rogers can't be overlooked. Baalke and the staff will have to put their collective heads together and find the right mix of veterans and draftees to ensure Eric Reid has ample support and the secondary doesn't regress in 2014.