The 2022 season saw the 49ers’ secondary perform at its highest level since the Super Bowl run of the 2019 campaign, but there are clearly still those who remain unconvinced by San Francisco’s options at the cornerback position.
ESPN’s Mike Clay put the 49ers cornerbacks at 24th in his recent ranking of every team’s depth chart at arguably the premier position on the defensive side of the ball.
That may be somewhat surprising given Charvarius Ward excelled in his first season with the 49ers, vindicating their decision to sign him to be their No. 1 corner, and Deommodore Lenoir emerged as a solid starter capable of impressing as an outside corner and at nickel
Yet, after an offseason in which the 49ers lost Emmanuel Moseley and Jimmie Ward, Clay’s ranking is more likely to be a reflection of San Francisco’s depth at the position rather than its starters.
The 49ers will look for Isaiah Oliver to stay healthy and justify his signing as their new starting nickel. However, for San Francisco to feel truly confident in its reserves at corner, the Niners may need second-year player Samuel Womack III to enjoy a Lenoir-esque rise.
There are already parallels between Lenoir and Womack. They were each drafted in the fifth round and each appeared set for prominent roles as rookies, only to then spend much of year one on the bench.
In 2021, Lenoir held up well in a Week 2 win over the Eagles before being benched after a chastening performance in prime time against the Packers a week later. His defensive snaps were limited the rest of the way.
Womack entered the 2022 season as the starter at nickel, but primarily featured on special teams as he was quickly usurped by Lenoir. The season-ending injury to Moseley and Lenoir’s subsequent move to the outside did not bring about a return to the lineup for Womack, as Jimmie Ward moved to nickel.
Lenoir’s ascension was testament to his response to a difficult rookie year and the 49ers adding competition at corner last offseason. With the 49ers signing Oliver and drafting Darrell Luter Jr. in the fifth round this year, Womack might be required to show similar character to ensure he earns more defensive snaps in 2023.
Womack will likely be provided every opportunity to secure such playing time. Though Lenoir quickly surpassed him on the depth chart last season, Womack has not done anything on the field to suggest he is undeserving of such chances.
To the contrary, Womack brings inside-out versatility the 49ers value highly and, in his brief stints on the field last year, displayed the trust in his eyes that helped him rack up 37 pass breakups across his final three seasons with Toledo.
Womack looked a long way from being a corner on whom the 49ers can depend when pressed into service in the Week 16 win over the Commanders. However, between Lenoir, strong safety Talanoa Hufanga and, on the other side of the ball, guard Aaron Banks, the 49ers have enjoyed a recent string of success developing players in their second year.
While they have found their starting nickel in Oliver and have a backup outside corner confident in press-man and zone in rookie Luter, a year-two leap for Womack would be a huge boon for the 49er secondary.
The flexibility corners who can play outside corner and nickel offer is invaluable in an era in which slot corner is essentially a starting position. Womack can provide that, offering injury insurance at two critical spots, and potentially giving San Francisco another reliable option in dime packages.
For the 49ers, the question surrounding their secondary has long since concerned what happens when starters go down. That is clearly still the case, and the Niners won’t want to find out in 2023. Yet if Womack can allay concerns by fighting his way onto the field for snaps when everyone his healthy, doubts around this talented but largely inexperienced group should start to recede.