The San Francisco 49ers are overhauling their starting cornerbacks this season, and some of our recent discussion has raised some questions for me. The 2016 starters were Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward. Brock has been released, while Ward has moved to free safety. Rashard Robinson replaced Ward in the starting lineup last season when the latter was hurt, with Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson coming off the bench.
The 49ers spent a third round pick on Ahkello Witherspoon this offseason, and the hope is likely that he and Robinson will be starting this fall. However, given that Witherspoon is a rookie, there is no guarantee that he will claim the starting job. Whether he does or not, the competition will feature a host of returning veterans that have been up and down over the past two seasons.
My biggest question is Dontae Johnson vs. Keith Reaser. Johnson served as the team’s nickel back his rookie season. In 2015, after the 49ers added Jimmie Ward, Johnson moved to the dime back role, but returned to the nickel role when Ward went on season-ending IR. Reaser spent 2014 on the NFI list, and then got limited cornerback work in 2015. However, in 2016, with Ward moving to starting on the outside opposite Brock, Reaser supplanted Johnson behind rookie Rashard Robinson as the next cornerback off the bench.
The 49ers are implementing a defense that they hope can replicate the success of the Seattle Seahawks. They will be using more press coverage from their cornerbacks, which is one reason Witherspoon was high on their list of draft options. However, how will this shake out Johnson vs. Reaser? Adrian Colbert, Prince Charles Iworah, Will Redmond, and others will be competing for cornerback time, but Johnson and Reaser are the two with the most experience.
Arm length and height can be valuable for this kind of work, but the biggest guys are not always the most physical. Reaser stands 5’10 with 30 3/4” arms, while Johnson stands 6’2 with 31 1/2” arms. For comparison, Robinson is 6’1 with 32 1/4” arms, and Witherspoon is 6’3 with 33” arms.
Brother Girth offered up some solid discussion of the 2017 position competitions, and two of them involved the cornerback position. I am inclined to think the competition opposite Robinson will include Witherspoon, Johnson, and Reaser initially. Some of the other younger players might work their way in, but the rookie and two veterans make the most sense for now.
Given the rebuilding process, it makes some sense to let Witherspoon get much-needed experience, but they won’t just hand him the job. If he slips, who stands the best chance of snagging that starting job?