SANTA CLARA — The 49ers secondary was perhaps one of the weakest links last year. As a unit, the 49ers pass defense was ranked 27th in the NFL in yards given up. Chip Kelly’s Eagles pass defense ranked 28th. Jim O’Neil’s Browns defensive pass defense was ranked slightly higher at 22nd. All three, the 49ers, Eagles, and Browns struggled in this area. Heading in to the season, though it looks good on paper, this might be the biggest area to watch this preseason and on in to the year.
It seems like general manager, Trent Baalke took this in to consideration this offseason by drafting 3 cornerbacks in Will Redmond (3rd Round out of Mississippi State), Rashard Robinson (4th Round out of LSU) and Prince Charles Iworah (6th Round out of Western Kentucky).
Jim O’Neil has decided to move Jimmie Ward, the 49ers 2014 first round pick, to cornerback full time. Ward spent most of his time in the nickel last season but has spent a lot of time playing at the primary right corner position this training camp. It seems on the surface that it’s likely that this move will carry over in to the season barring any dramatic flaws out there during the preseason games.
Tramaine Brock is currently listed as the other starting corner on the 49ers depth chart. This of course is subject to change. Brock has spent the past couple of years fighting off nagging injuries but in 2013 was tied for 3rd in the league in interceptions. It will be his job to lose heading in to this preseason segment for the 49ers.
Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser are two more players who have been alternating in and out of the rotation with the one’s and two’s Reaser has also seen significant time at the nickel position along with Chris Davis, who most of the local beat writers are considering as a strong candidate to start here. As a side note, Reaser is first cousins with the late great, Sean Taylor of the Washington Redskins. He has said the the media that he likes to play the game passionately; something that he learned from his cousin who poured his heart and soul in to the game of football.
The four safety positions are strongly suggesting that Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea (who was injured a majority of the year in 2015), Jacquiski Tartt (who filled in for Bethea quite well), and Marcus Cromartie (who played corner in 2015). L.J. McCray is also a candidate that has spent most of his time excelling on special teams.
It seems as though the bubble players would be Kenneth Acker (who started for the 49ers last season), Cleveland Wallace, and any three of the rookies that were drafted this season; which also would be eligible for the Niners practice squad assuming that they clear waivers.
It’s most likely that the 49ers will carry 5 corners, 6 max due to Jimmie Ward’s versatility, and 4 safeties (2 free safeties, 2 strong safeties). This will take up 10 or 11 roster spots on the 53-man roster. With 25 on offense and 25 on defense, 3 special teamers in Dawson, Pinion, and Nelson … it leaves little room for error on the decisions. Getting the right guys at every position will never be more important than it is now for the future of this franchise; especially in the secondary which had it’s issues in 2015.
I believe that the spots will be taken by the following players:
Cornerbacks: Brock, Ward, Johnson, Davis, Reaser, Robinson.
Safeties: Reid, Bethea, Tartt, Cormartie.
It’s tough to predict these kind of things … especially with so much unknown with the rookies and new faces.
Tomorrow will kick off the season officially as the 49ers will host the Houston Texans in their first exhibition game of the 2016 season. While there are so many intriguing storylines, and the focus obviously on the quarterback position, this will be one to monitor closely considering the low bar that has been set by all three parties (personnel, coaching, coordinator) in 2015.