Full Breakdown of 49ers Secondary Ahead of Training Camp
The San Francisco 49ers have maintained much of their core in the Jim Harbaugh era, but 2014 will bring plenty of new faces to the defense, particularly to the secondary.
For a team aiming to contend for a championship, a blown up defensive backfield could be viewed as a potential Achilles' heel. Passing offenses are more sophisticated than ever, after all, with records seemingly falling left and right as each season goes by.
However, there is reason to be optimistic, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
In a piece written even before the draft, Barrows argued that this unit was not dissimilar to the unit built in 2011 that contributed greatly to a surprising 13-3 season. As hard as it is to believe now, players such as cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner were essentially castoffs when they were brought into the fold.
The names have changed, of course, but this year's unit will again attempt to defy expectations. With little starting experience and plenty of turnover, this secondary will have to learn on the fly for the 49ers to continue their recent winning ways.
So which names will be headlining the show in 2014?
Starters (Projected): Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver
Key Reserves: Chris Cook, Dontae Johnson, Perrish Cox
Once an undrafted castoff out of tiny Belhaven College, cornerback Tramaine Brock seized the day after starting seven games in 2013. Now locked up with a four-year contract extension, Brock is all but set in stone as the top cornerback on the roster, according to Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
As Price notes, however, the rest of the cornerback depth chart is essentially up for grabs following the offseason departures of cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
Cornerback Chris Culliver started six games for the 49ers in 2012 before missing last season with a knee injury. As noted by David Fucillo of Niners Nation, Culliver had shown much promise before an inconsistent second half of 2012, which included a disastrous Super Bowl.
Of course, Culliver is also facing possible legal repercussions (per Fucillo in a separate piece for Niners Nation), but as of yet, he has neither been suspended nor is finished with his legal proceedings.
In a separate post, Price noted that newcomer Chris Cook has taken most of the first-team snaps in training camp as Culliver rehabs his knee (via 49ers.com). Cook, however, largely disappointed in his four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, failing to record a single interception in 29 career starts.
The hope is that solid coaching will bring the best out of Cook's 6'2", 200-pound frame and resurrect a once-promising career.
Price of 49ers.com also has veteran Perrish Cox and rookie Dontae Johnson in the mix, but Johnson appears to be the favorite to make the roster and see the field. Greg Gabriel of the National Football Post has mentioned Johnson as a rookie to watch in 2014, mostly because of his raw size and physicality.
Starter (Projected): Jimmie Ward
Key Reserves: Darryl Morris, Perrish Cox
The 49ers didn't draft Northern Illinois defensive back Jimmie Ward in the first round to ride the pine, but a collegiate injury could slow his debut as an NFL defensive back.
After missing OTAs and minicamps, Ward will face an uphill battle in preparing for his rookie season. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also tempered expectations in a conversation with Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, saying, "[Ward's] going to be behind,” Fangio said. “And it’s going to be important for him – and for us as coaches – to realize he’s behind and just fight through that. Because he’s not going to look good early.
Ward's skill set and potential make him the fan favorite to assume the nickel cornerback role, but the learning curve will not be easy. According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, veterans Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris have handled most of the practice reps in his place.
As an undrafted free agent in 2013, Morris appeared in 13 games during his rookie season. By comparison, Cox was released by San Francisco halfway through 2013 but was brought back as injuries to the secondary mounted at the end of the regular season.
Logic would suggest that Morris is ahead of Cox in line, and the young corner has caught the eye of Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Barrows sees the speedy Morris as an underdog hopeful, albeit one with the perfect skill set to endear himself to Fangio. One of the fastest players on the roster, Morris also has special teams value, which should further help him secure a roster spot.
Starter (Projected): Antoine Bethea
Key Reserves: Craig Dahl, Bubba Ventrone
Losing a two-time Pro Bowler such as safety Donte Whitner is never easy, but the 49ers think they've found their man in veteran Antoine Bethea.
The former Indianapolis Colts safety is also a two-time Pro Bowler, although his last appearance was in 2009. Durability has never been a concern, however, as Bethea has started every game since the beginning of the 2008 season.
A Super Bowl champion as well, Bethea appears to be fitting in well with the 49ers system, according to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com:
Bethea is a pro and he fits in with the 49ers' scheme. The 49ers may occasionally miss Donte Whitner's crushing hits. But many scouts think Bethea may be a better overall fit and there will not be a drop off.
According to Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke, Bethea also has less a penchant for committing personal fouls than his predecessor.
Bethea will likely be backed up by veteran safety Craig Dahl, who has played both free and strong safety in his career. Dahl brings 42 career starts to the table, but he also took a pay cut to remain with the team after a dicey first season in San Francisco.
As noted by James Brady of Niners Nation, Dahl did take a lot of snaps in relief of free safety Eric Reid as well, but that versatility is probably his best quality. Along with his contributions on special teams, Dahl brings safe, veteran experience to an inexperienced defensive backfield.
Special teams ace Bubba Ventrone is technically listed as a safety, but he is essentially on the roster only as a specialist.
Starter (Projected): Eric Reid
Key Reserves: C.J. Spillman
Very little can be said about star safety Eric Reid that has not already been said.
A Pro Bowler in his first professional season, the first-round pick out of LSU exceeded all expectations in 2013. Concussion issues aside (two in 2013), Reid made a consistent impact throughout the year.
Of course, the departure of strong safety Donte Whitner will leave Reid with a new partner in the defensive backfield in 2014. Veteran Antoine Bethea comes over from the Colts with plenty of experience, but Reid is the member of this tandem most familiar with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's system.
In fact, Reid is the only member of the projected starting secondary to have started 16 games in a 49ers uniform.
Behind Reid, special teams star C.J. Spillman is likely to compete with safety Craig Dahl for the primary backup role. While Dahl took over when Reid was sidelined last year, Spillman was more likely to play in situations that fielded three safeties at once.
As noted by David Fucillo of Niners Nation, Spillman is fighting for a spot but has a strong shot at making the final roster. His contributions on both defense and special teams set him apart from other reserves at the safety position, making it hard to part ways with such a versatile player.
Keith Reaser, Cornerback
Picked in the fifth round out of Florida Atlantic, Keith Reaser is still recovering from an ACL tear suffered during his final college season. As NFL Network's Mike Mayock said regarding the pick (via NFL.com): "This is a value pick. The 49ers have so many picks, so they are picking for next year. They will put Reaser on the PUP list, but this is a 4.3 (40) corner and those are rare."
Fans will have to wait on Reaser, but the talent certainly appears to be worth waiting for.
Kenneth Acker, Cornerback
Rookie cornerback Kenneth Acker has not received much press as a sixth-round pick, likely because of the depth at his position. For what it's worth, Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee has Acker "fighting for a roster spot" in camp.
While not in the mix as a starter, Acker will have to beat out Darryl Morris or a veteran such as cornerback Perrish Cox to crack the roster.
D.J. Campbell, Safety
After spending time with both the Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers in his short career, safety D.J. Campbell is currently on a reserve/future contract. David Fucillo of Niners Nation puts his roster odds as incredibly slim, and it's hard to disagree.
Other reserve safeties, such as Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman, all contribute greatly on special teams, making them harder to unseat.
James McCray, Safety
Brought in as an undrafted free agent from little-known Catawba College, safety James McCray brings the special teams prowess that Campbell lacks. As pointed out by Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, McCray is experienced on special teams and as a returner.
Roster odds are still tough given the depth at safety, but any ability to contribute will help the rookie.
2015 Projections and Conclusion
Projected 2015 Stats
Tramaine Brock, CB: 51 tackles and five interceptions
Chris Culliver, CB: 58 tackles and three interceptions
Eric Reid, FS: 83 tackles and four interceptions
Antoine Bethea, SS: 92 tackles and four total takeaways
Much has been made about the secondary overhaul in San Francisco, but there are many reasons to be optimistic about this positional area heading into training camp.
At safety, Eric Reid is a budding superstar ready to lead the defense. Veteran Antoine Bethea brings a championship pedigree and durability to shore up the other safety spot.
For all that the 49ers lack in experience at cornerback, there's no denying the raw talent on this roster. Consider these words from Dan Pompei of SportsonEarth.com:
That [roster overhaul] left Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and newcomer Chris Cook as the team's top three cornerbacks. None of them have established themselves as solid starters yet, but all of them have the ability to do so.
This time last year, there was genuine concern as to whether Reid could replace departed All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson. While Pro Bowl expectations for Brock, Culliver or Cook would be unfair, there's certainly reason to believe in the front office that entrusted them atop the depth chart.
Secondary statistics are difficult to predict and not always very telling, but the overall play of the unit can be put into meaningful terms.
The 49ers finished seventh in pass defense last season (per NFL.com), despite injuries to Reid and former starting cornerback Tarell Brown. While this season will most likely see a slight drop-off, a finish within the top 10 is not unrealistic.
Each member of this projected starting group has shown what he can do at one point or another. Now, all these players have to do is put the pieces together.
All statistics and accolades according to Pro Football Reference, unless otherwise noted. Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter by following @ByTomSmeaton.
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