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49ers post-free agency position review: Cornerback

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Have the 49ers run out of luck at the cornerback position?

The San Francisco 49ers typically have a group of cornerbacks that looks bad on paper, overachieves during the season and then leaves everyone questioning what to do in the offseason. Last season, things finally reached a point where the play was outright terrible for long stretches, and it’s clear the young group of guys and the veterans involved simply don’t combine for a very effective unit.

Strong free agent and draft classes at safety and exemplary linebacker play have combined to cover up the cornerback deficiencies over the years. The 49ers keep bringing in a couple late-round guys and they usually do well in the veteran market in free agency, but it’s simply caught up with them in recent years with no big hits in the draft outside of Jimmie Ward’s play at nickle.

And even then, the 49ers don’t always play him where they should. Last season, they went with Ward, Tramaine Brock, Rashard Robinson, Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, Marcus Cromartie, Chris Davis, Will Redmond and Prince Charles Iowah.

That’s a lot of players, and none of them remarkable. Brock looked like he might have a bright future ahead of him and put in a couple quality seasons, but he was outright bad last season. Ward is still an in-between player, and struggled big time down the stretch. Robinson got burned bad in several games but still has upside.

At times, Robinson looked like the best corner. He didn’t look much like a rookie for most of the season, but there were a few games where he seemed to give up everything. Johnson and Reaser have shown flashes, but ultimately I’ve lost patience with them as they enter the final year of their contract. Redmond was injured and has some upside.

Free agency

The 49ers went out and signed K’Wuan Williams near the start of free agency. He’s on a one-year “prove it” deal and I don’t really think his skillset has anything to be excited about. But he’s a guy who could have some upside, at least.

They have yet to resign Cromartie or Davis, while the rest are all under contract for 2017. It wasn’t exactly a great cornerback market, to be fair.

Going forward

The 49ers have eight cornerbacks under contract for 2017, and only two of them — second-year players Will Redmond and Rashard Robinson — are signed beyond this coming season (the 49ers have a fifth year option on Jimmie Ward for 2018).

Brock is getting up there in years and has definitely hit his ceiling. It’s make-or-break for Johnson and Reaser, if it wasn’t already last year. Robinson and Redmond will likely get their biggest shot, with Williams in the mix as well. The others are fringe players, but ultimately, there isn’t a ton of room for rookies.

But John Lynch, a former defensive back himself, will surely have some opinions about this year’s class. Below, I’m going to look at a few cornerbacks in the NFL Draft — some from the early rounds and some from the later rounds — and it will by no means be a definitive list. So if there is someone you like that I don’t talk about, talk him up in the comments for your fellow readers.

NFL Draft

Marlon Humphrey, Alabama: To me, Humphrey is the best cornerback in the class. He’s got quick feet, great hips and has the size and speed to match up with anybody in the NFL. He could be a top 16 pick.

Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State: Some consider Lattimore to be the top cornerback in the class, and I can see why. Excellent size and speed, a pure cover corner, NFL-ready. He could be the first one off the board.

Gareon Conley, Ohio State: Another Ohio State cornerback because, fancy that, they’re both very good. Or maybe one of them is just really good and the other one looks better? I suppose that’s always a concern. Whatever the case, Conley is quick, versatile and doesn’t have any glaring issues I can think of.

Adoree Jackson, USC: Fifty-five tackles, 11 passes broken up, five interceptions and four kickoff/punt returns for touchdowns. He needs to put on a little weight, but I love his skillset beyond that. Unfortunately, he does get beat deep a lot despite having the speed to defend against it.

Tre’Davious White, LSU: White is another guy who brings a whole lot of value to the return game. He’s a playmaker, perhaps the best playmaker at the position in this year’s draft. He’s a good cover corner and doesn’t get beat deep.

Ahkello Witherspoon, Colorado: We move out of the first-round guys and on to Witherspoon of Colorado. He had 22 passes broken up, an interception and 23 tackles and it still felt like teams weren’t throwing his way often. He could be around in the third round.

Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson: Ten passes broken up and four interceptions would have been a lot more if teams weren’t scared to throw at him. He does have a tendency to be streaky and that is a concern, but with good size and great speed for that size, he’s got a lot to offer.

Desmond King, Iowa: Many think he should play safety because he’s not that fast but honestly, I see a very good nickle zone corner here and he could be a fit in the 49ers’ new defense. He’s got great instincts and ball skills, and could be a fourth-round guy.

Ezra Robinson, Tennessee State: A very complete senior prospect, Robinson impressed me at the senior bowl and I think there’s a lot to like as a late-round guy. He could contribute early on, and that may be important for the 49ers.

Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado: I feel like nobody noticed this guy and I’m not sure why. Great speed for prototypical size, he’s a sure tackler and can play man coverage well. He is another streaky guy though, and when he struggles, he struggled big time.

Nate Hairston, Temple: He didn’t play enough for me, but he’s got good size and the bits he did play were quite good. He was originally a wide receiver and moved positions, so there is some development still to come.