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The 49ers will be plenty busy adding cornerbacks

We review the 49ers’ cornerback position from 2017. There’s going to be a lot of turnover.

Before the start of the NFL free agency period, we’re going to look at various positions on the San Francisco 49ers’ roster to determine a few things. The first is whether or not the position improved from 2016 to 2017. The second is to see if free agency is a viable option to improve the position — if it’s even needed.

Season in review

Today, we’re going to talk about the cornerbacks. And there is certainly plenty to talk about. The 49ers turned over virtually the entire depth chart over the course of a year, and will finish up that total renovation this coming offseason when they likely replace Dontae Johnson.

A year ago, Tramaine Brock and Rashard Robinson ended the season as the team’s starting outside cornerbacks. They got a jump on free agency early, landing K’Waun Williams in late February. They did not get overly aggressive otherwise in free agency, but early April brought a big change. The team released Tramaine Brock following an arrest for suspicion of domestic violence. I don’t know how that impacted the team’s draft board, but three weeks later they drafted Ahkello Witherspoon in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. They later added Adrian Colbert, who was listed as a defensive back and was expected to get some time between cornerback and safety.

Witherspoon was slow out of the gates, with questions about his size dominating the conversation. He had the height and length, but he seemed to struggle with strength. He was inactive the first four weeks, and it seemed like he was headed for a fairly disappointing rookie season.

Except, things changed in Week 5. He was active and got a limited amount of work. In Weeks 6 and 7, he became a rotational player, rotating into the game in place of both Robinson and Dontae Johnson. In Week 8, he replaced Robinson in the starting lineup, and two days later, they traded Robinson to the New York Jets for a fifth round pick.

Witherspoon is expected to put on a little more weight this offseason. An increase in size and strength, coupled with a season’s worth of film to learn from bodes well for his continued growth. It remains to be seen if he will develop into a clear No. 1 cornerback, but his upside gives them a strong building block at cornerback.

Meanwhile, K’Waun Williams secured the starting nickel role right out of the gate. It only took him three weeks as the team’s nickel back to earn a three-year contract extension. He missed two games with a quadricep injury, but otherwise played out the season, and was a consistent performer in the slot. The 49ers will bring in some competition, but it is unlikely they will invest in anything other than a little depth.

The biggest disappointment was Dontae Johnson. Part of that was due to the tough matchups he faced, but the tall, lengthy cornerback was burned on big play after big play. Late in the season he started getting replaced in the starting lineup, with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh talking about wanting him to get a chance to clear his head and get back out there.

Johnson was never formally benched, but part of that was due in part to Greg Mabin suffering a calf injury. Mabin replaced him late in the season during a game, but a calf injury cost Mabin two weeks and ended that brief experiment. That being said, with a sizable turnover happening at cornerback, Mabin is one of the few returning depth options, and could get a big opportunity in the offseason workout program.

Here’s a look at the way the position changed from 2016 to 2017:

2016 Week 17: Tramaine Brock, Rashard Robinson, Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, JaCorey Shepherd, Prince Charles Iworah, Chris Davis (IR), Will Redmond (IR), Jimmie Ward (IR), Duke Thomas (PS)
2017 Week 1: Rashard Robinson, Dontae Johnson, K’Waun Williams, Ahkello Witherspoon, Keith Reaser, Prince Charles Iworah (IR), Will Redmond (IR), Asa Jackson (PS)
Current: Ahkello Witherspoon, Dontae Johnson, K’Waun Williams, Leon Hall, Antone Exum, Jr., Greg Mabin, Asa Jackson (IR), Channing Stribling (PS)
2018 Free Agents: Dontae Johnson, Asa Jackson, Leon Hall

The market for cornerbacks

We’re going to take a deeper look at the various positions and free agents available in a separate series. For now, here’s a quick and dirty list of the top cornerbacks set to hit the open market.

Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams
Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots
E.J. Gaines, Buffalo Bills
Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears
Aaron Colvin, Jacksonville Jaguars
Prince Amukamara, Chicago Bears
Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts
Bashaud Breeland, Washington
Morris Claiborne, New York Jets
Rashaan Melvin, Indianapolis Colts
Patrick Robinson, Philadelphia Eagles

We’ve already heard plenty about the 49ers players starting the recruiting of Malcolm Butler. It’s safe to say though that the 49ers will be mentioned in connection with virtually every notable free agent cornerback. The position is an obvious need and the 49ers have a ton of cap space. That makes it all but certain agents will use them in the media and directly with other teams as a potential counter to beef up offers.

The 49ers will sign at least one cornerback in free agency, but the question is whether it will be a big name like Johnson, Butler, Fuller, or someone like that, or some depth options in order to then go after the position in the draft.