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49ers training camp position battle preview: Nickel back

The San Francisco 49ers are trying to figure out who will be their first cornerback off the bench to join Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward. We take a look at where things stand in that position competition heading into training camp.

The San Francisco 49ers start training camp later next week, which means we’ll start to get some resolution on who will make the roster, and how the starting lineup will look come Week 1. As we come down this final stretch, I thought we’d go through some of the notable position competitions facing the 49ers in training camp. We’re going to focus primarily on starters, but we might mix in some pertinent reserve roles from time-to-time. We started things off with right tackle, inside linebacker, and wide receiver.

Today we move on to nickel back. It is technically not a “starter” in the base 3-4 defense, but the 49ers play enough nickel and dime that the first cornerback off the bench ends up playing near starter snaps.

The incumbent(s): Jimmie Ward

Ward has been the team’s nickel back his first two seasons in the league (outside of his rookie injury). However, in OTAs and minicamp he spent his time outside. He was in the slot for one day of OTAs, but otherwise has been outside, even when the team goes into its nickel defense. He’s the incumbent at the position, but it would seem he is leaving that job for a bigger role.

The challengers: Chris Davis, Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson, Kenneth acker

This is where it gets interesting. Ward has been playing primarily outside, but the first cornerback off the bench could impact who moves where. If a big lengthy cornerback like Johnson or Robinson wins the job, maybe the team goes back to using Ward in the slot a bit more. If Davis, Reaser, or Redmond claims the job, they could be the one who is working the slot. And Acker is a tough one to figure, having claimed a starting job last year, but then losing it to Johnson late in the season. Davis has been getting a lot of first team work in the slot, while Johnson and Robinson are getting second team outside cornerback work. In the one open practice where Ward did cover the slot in the nickel package, Johnson was on the outside.

Leader in the clubhouse: I really don’t know. Davis was getting first team slot work, but I don’t think that necessarily means he is the leader to be the first cornerback off the bench. I could be wrong and the coaching staff could be entirely impressed with him, but I guess I’m a little skeptical for now. Redmond is rehabbing his ACL injury, and we don’t know his injury status yet. And Johnson and Robinson seem to have the length the team wants out on the field where possible.

Contract implications: Third year player implications for a couple guys. They’ve got a lot of young, cheap options at cornerback. However, Ward, Johnson, and Acker are entering the third season of their rookie contracts. The 49ers have to decide next offseason whether or not to exercise Ward’s fifth year option. Johnson and Acker will be looking to earn the fourth year proven performance escalator if they get enough snaps this season. Additionally, both are eligible for a contract extension once the seaosn ends.

Wild card: Could Prince Charles Iworah surprise us by turning his athleticism into production? He would have ranked at or near the top in most categories if he had been at the NFL Combine. My guess is his best shot remains on special teams, but he’s a guy to watch.

Way too early prediction: This really is a tough one. Redmond is the guy they want to be the slot corner of the future, but we won’t know till next week things stand with his ACL recovery. If he’s able to practice from day one, I could see him winning the slot corner position fairly quickly. However, for the time being I think Dontae Johnson will be the first cornerback off the bench. I could see Robinson moving up the depth chart fairly quickly, but without any playing time over the last year and a half prior to OTAs and minicamp, it’s hard to see him climbing right into that first DB off the bench role.