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6 Day 2 cornerback candidates who should be on the 49ers’ radar

The depth in the cornerback class can significantly help San Francisco.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 01 Reese’s Senior Bowl Practice Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 49ers could go in any direction with their three picks late in the third round of this week’s draft. But given the sheer depth at the position and San Francisco’s lack of dependable reserves behind their starters in the secondary, it seems likely the Niners will invest in some rookie cornerbacks.

I’ve already profiled one who, I believe, would be an excellent fit for San Francisco and potentially available in the third round in Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.

Tomlinson, though, is obviously a huge outlier at his diminutive size. In an ideal world, San Francisco would probably prefer to select a corner with frame and the physical tools to excel at this premium position in the pros.

Thankfully, there are a host of such prospects in the draft. And those who can comfortably play both zone and press-man coverage should have great appeal to a Niners team that signed a free agent who had previously done his best work in press last offseason, with Charvarius Ward’s adaptation to the San Francisco defense an unqualified success in 2022.

So, which players who could be available on day two fit the bill and have the skill set to deputise for Ward and Deommodore Lenoir and eventually compete for a starting role? Let’s look at six who should be on the 49ers’ radar.

Julius Brents, Kansas State

It’s perhaps a tad unrealistic to suggest that Brents could fall to the Niners, given there’s some talk of him as a potential first-round pick. However, should he be available on Day 2, he may top the list of potential selections in a scenario in which the 49ers make an aggressive move up the board.

Brents crushed his pre-draft workout in every area except the 40-yard dash, which he completed in 4.53 seconds. Yet, his vertical jump was in the 96th percentile and his broad jump the 99th, with his three-cone in the 93rd.

With 96th percentile height, 98th percentile arm length and 99th percentile wingspan, Brents is remarkably physically gifted, and he put those gifts to excellent use in college.

Brents can play press-man and zone very effectively. In the former, he has shown the ability to mirror receivers, but will also use his length to jam and disrupt them. His hip turn is not as fluid as his testing suggests, but Brents can still flip his hips and stay in phase, with his long arms a significant aid in this area.

In zone, Brents displays hugely impressive awareness. He plays with good eyes to the quarterback and understands when to change his coverage responsibilities based on the routes of the receivers.

Able to transition efficiently out of his pedal, Brents gets great drive on the ball, his length naturally making it easier to make plays at the catch point regardless of what coverage he is playing.

Brents’ on-ball production — he had four interceptions and four pass breakups in 2022 — would be even better were he not so inconsistent at finding the ball in the air, and teams may also want to him be more intelligent in how he deploys his physical style of play, which became a hindrance in a penalty-riddled nightmare performance against Quentin Johnston in the Big 12 title game.

But between his athletic traits, his coverage versatility and his outstanding play in run support, Brents has a lot of ingredients to suggest he could blossom into a starting corner, and a player of his abilities may be worth aggressively pursuing should he make it out of round one.

Kelee Ringo, Georgia

Ringo is similar to Brents in that he is also a candidate to potentially hear his name called on Thursday.

It’s easy to see why. At a little over 6’1”, and 207 pounds, Ringo offers an enticing combination of size and speed, which allows him to consistently stay in phase with receivers downfield.

He is a very aggressive press-man corner who leans on physicality but also an awareness of how to restrict space, regularly pinning receivers to the sideline and using it as an extra defender.

When he does surrender separation, Ringo can use his speed to recover and put himself back in position to make a play, doing so frequently through his success in finding the ball in the air.

While he plays with fluid hips, Ringo’s stop-start quickness and change of direction quickness are areas of doubt. He struggled mightily, and somewhat understandably, against the route-running craft of Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. and consistently surrenders separation at the top of the route through his struggles in gearing down.

Inconsistent in zone and often guilty of losing track of his receiver on scramble drills, Ringo is certainly in need of refinement. But his physical traits are those of a starter, and he too should be in the conversation as a potential trade target for the 49ers on day two.

Eli Ricks, Alabama

Ricks is more likely to be attainable by the 49ers without a trade, though that may be in large part because of the athletic upside of Brents and Ringo.

That is not to stay Ricks, who transferred to Alabama from LSU, is a bad athlete and, at 6’2”, with arms over 32 inches long, he has a physical profile that will appeal to the Niners if they increase the amount of man coverage they plan to play.

Ricks gets his hands on receivers early and often, but can also play mirror-match. He uses his length extremely well to maintain tight coverage and finds the ball impressively, demonstrating tremendous competitiveness at the catch point.

While press-man is his forte, Ricks is experienced and comfortable in zone. He keeps his eyes on the football and is quick to transition out of his drop and break towards the ball.

But Ricks’ vulnerability against speed may give teams pause. He struggles when he is forced to flip his hips quickly and, like Ringo, has had issues gearing down and staying with receivers at the top of the route on comebacks and curls.

Frequently failing to get off run blocks expediently, Ricks doesn’t offer the same level of play against the ground game as Brents, and with only one year of impressive production to his name — in 2020 with LSU when he had four picks and five pass breakups —there’s reason to believe the 49ers might look elsewhere at corner even if he is on the board at pick 99.

Darius Rush, South Carolina

Overshadowed by potential first-rounder Cam Smith, whom he played alongside for the Gamecocks, Rush has starting-caliber traits himself, his most evident showing up on the 40-yard dash track.

Rush ran a 4.36 at 6’,2”, 198 pounds and, with arms over 33 inches long, he possesses a mix of size, speed and length that will have defensive backs coaches salivating.

That length gives Rush an obvious advantage at the catch point. His production — 15 pass breakups and three picks in the last two seasons — reflects that.

Extremely physical in press-man, Rush doesn’t rush to flip his hips. Instead, he displays patience and composure, facilitated by the knowledge he has the speed to easily stay in touch with receivers downfield.

Rush can read the quarterback’s eyes from deep and efficiently trigger downhill towards the ball when playing zone, but he is far from a complete corner.

He excels with physical press but lacks the agility to mirror, with receivers who can sell fakes with their release finding success against him. Those who can separate at the top of the route have also thrived against Rush, who suffers from the same problems with stop-start quickness as Ringo and Ricks.

There are clear inconsistencies in Rush’s game that must be ironed out for him to thrive in the NFL, but he is a prospect ripe to be moulded into a high-upside pro starter. Perhaps the Niners will have to move up to snag him but, with starters already in place, San Francisco is arguably the perfect place for Rush to take the next step in his development.

Riley Moss, Iowa

There’s many who believe Moss would be better suited to playing safety at the next level.

The prospect of potentially cross-training him to play there may be an enticing one to a 49ers team that needs depth at safety. However, Moss does boast a host of traits that could help thrive at corner at the next level.

Moss has 4.4 speed to go with his 6’, 198-pound frame and, though he lacks the arm length of the likes of Brents, Rush and Ricks, has excelled playing both press-man and zone.

Zone is where most of his expertise lies. He has excellent eyes, a sound understanding of his responsibilities and read-and-react ability that enables him to consistently make plays on the ball from zone.

Moss gets out of his pedal quickly and gets great drive on the ball, his proficiencies in that regard a big reason why he racked up 11 interceptions and 26 pass breakups — 11 of which came during his final college season — during his time at Iowa.

Though it is not difficult to see him succeeding at corner in the NFL, it is also pretty clear why there are those who believe Moss would benefit from a position switch.

Moss has had problems with change of direction quickness, often being caught flat-footed by receivers who can challenge him with their agility, and has been guilty of losing contested-catch battles.

A move to safety that would take away some of the pressure of matching up with wideouts would arguably allow him to make better use of his excellent instincts operating in deep-zone coverages.

Yet, regardless of what the 49ers view as his best role, Moss — who has played inside and out in his career — offers athletic upside, positional versatility, coverage versatility and outstanding on-ball production. That mix could make him an excellent value pick for a franchise looking to fill out its secondary that has long since valued versatility.

Cory Trice, Purdue

Trice — real name, no gimmicks (sorry) — has flown under the radar during the pre-draft process, but his is a skill set worthy of more hype.

Coming off an excellent senior season in which he registered 10 pass breakups and two interceptions, Trice perhaps represents the most viable alternative if Brents, Ringo and Rush are gone well before the 49ers make their first selection.

Trice is 6’3” and 206 pounds, he ran in high 4.4s and has 81st percentile arm length, the latter critical to his success in disrupting receivers early in the route when playing press.

Indeed, Trice excels at getting his hands on wideouts early and then staying in their hip pocket. Through his length and his determination, he is ultra-competitive at the catch point and, while at his best in press, has demonstrated the awareness in zone to create negative plays by reading the eyes of quarterbacks and jumping the routes of their intended receivers.

As with Moss, Trice checks both versatility boxes in terms of positions and coverage, but he may have an edge in the eyes of the 49ers because of his play against the run.

Trice is aggressive in his attitude to run support, bringing the same mentality that defines his play at the catch point, while using the correct technique in wrapping up ball-carriers.

The speed to recover separation when he surrenders it is lacking, but Trice is a well-rounded corner who still has room to grow, and he’s a good fit for a secondary in need of depth options with his kind of potential.