When I asked Kyle Shanahan Sunday afternoon if he believed the 49ers would go with a cornerback by committee approach opposite of Charvarius Ward, he scoffed at the notion, saying how Deommodore Lenoir played excellent during the second half of the season and had earned a spot.
Technically, against the Broncos on Saturday, Lenoir didn’t start. Ambry Thomas got the nod, while Lenoir played six reps in the slot. But it’s the preseason and the 49ers likely wanted to see what they had in Thomas.
Ambry had two plays he’d like to have back, one against the pass and one against the run. Both were situational plays that led to first downs. Thomas had played well enough leading up to Saturday, and didn’t necessarily have a bad game, but didn’t take full advantage of his opportunity.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is trying to find the best trio of cornerbacks. If that involves Thomas on the outside and Lenoir in the middle, then so be it. But the nickel position “is open, just like every other position,” according to Wilks:
I’m very pleased with where we are. And just to indulge a little bit of information and don’t get in the habit of listening to this or thinking that I’m going to do this every time, but we’re very pleased with where [CB Isaiah] Oliver is. We brought him in for a reason. This league’s all about matchups. I’ve never been a part of anything like this to have this kind of depth.
I’ve been on teams where we’re waiting to see exactly the last preseason game of who gets cut and everybody’s looking at this particular team trying to pull from.
So, to have the options that we have, not only at the nickel position, but across the board, linebacker as well as D-Line is a luxury.
And again, with the matchups that we’re going to face, Oliver’s going to be in there. [DB Deommodore Lenoir] Demo may be in there based off who we’re playing. We continue to just try to find a perfect mix. So, I think that’s the key thing. And that’s the reason why you saw Demo in there last week.”
If we let the 49ers actions speak louder than their words, Lenoir isn’t coming off the field. Whether that means Thomas, Oliver, or another cornerback comes in remains to be seen. Here’s what Wilks said about Deommodore playing in the slot:
“Looked pretty good. Looked good all week during practice. Very natural in there. Great vision, understands concepts. And most importantly, he gives you that ability to be able to still match up in the slot with quicker receivers.”
Oliver played 18 snaps against Denver compared to Ambry’s 33. Thomas, Ji’Ayir Brown, and Samuel Womack were the only defensive backs to play more than 30 snaps. The coaching staff wants to get a long look at those three.
Knowing that it’s matchup league, Thomas’s length and athleticism give him the slight advantage over Womack. To me, Womack played well, but when you get an opportunity for an interception, especially when you’re fighting for playing time, you have to seize those moments.
Wilks knows that Womack let one get away:
“Very disappointed he didn’t get that one. Particularly with the next play being what it was. But, we’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities. I think he’s playing well. He had some critical plays in the run game, stepping up, making some good tackles. So, I’m excited where he is. But most important right here, he needs to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Instead of a pick-six that would’ve given the 49ers the lead heading into halftime, the Broncos completed a 50-yard pass on the ensuing play. Denver failed to capitalize, but the Niners can’t be happy with that process.
Those are the plays players like Womack have to make in the preseason. Still, he broke up both of his targets and made a play against the run.
At 5’10, 189, Wilks may not see Womack as a “matchup” type. That brings us back to the battle inside, and likely the reason the Niners aren’t giving up on 6’, 210-pound Isaiah Oliver after two preseason games. In a league where slot receivers are getting bigger, or just becoming tight ends, you need bigger bodies over the middle.
Here’s Wilks on the style of wideout you see in the NFL in the slot:
“Think about the league and how it’s made up. It is no utopia. So, for us to be able to have balance right there is critical. I wouldn’t put Demo on a tight end. We may want to go nickel with 12 personnel. I’m not going to put Demo on the tight end. Oliver’s going to be on that other tight end. There’s going to be certain matchups in the slot right there based off who that guy may be. I’m not going to put Oliver in that situation. Demo may be that guy. So, there’s teams that don’t have this flexibility. I think it’s a luxury.”
When I asked Shanahan about the “committee” approach, it was really to see if the team would bounce back and forth between Thomas, Womack, and Brown. Whoever plays on the opposite side of Ward will be a popular target for opposing offenses.
The 49ers may not have their answer at cornerback by Week 1. Finding a long-term option who is already on the roster, especially on a rookie contract, would prove to be a massive find and benefit.