The San Francisco 49ers have a roster stocked full of talent. They have a very passionate coach who always gets his team prepared on Sundays. They have been to the NFC championship three years running, and came up one play shy of a Super Bowl victory two seasons ago. In the NFL, however, it is all about championships, and regardless of how talented the red and gold may be, until they take home the Lombardi Trophy as world champions, they are just another team among 29 others saying “better luck next year.” This past season, San Francisco was defeated in the NFC Championship by bitter division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks. Making matters even worse, the Seahawks went on to become Super Bowl champs. It all boils down to one simple question, what must the red and gold do in order to beat Seattle and put them over the hump toward championship glory? Many analysts believe they need to add a speedy, play-making receiver. While that is certainly accurate, there are just as many reasons, if not more, why cornerback should be the top priority for the 49ers in the 2014 NFL draft.
The first reason is San Francisco’s starting corners from 2013 are no longer on the roster. Tarell Brown left in free agency and Carlos Brown was cut. Coincidentally, both players signed with the Oakland Raiders and will be playing football across the bay on Sundays. Though they may not have been cornerbacks of the shutdown variety, Brown and Rogers had been a very steady duo in San Francisco’s defensive secondary since 2011–head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s first season on the scene. Now due to the tandem’s departure, the 49ers are not only down two veteran players, but they are left with vacancies at two very crucial spots on their defense.
Tramaine Brock figures to fill one of the open slots out on the perimeter after receiving a significant pay increase on his new three-year contract extension. Due to a pre-season injury to defensive back Chris Culliver, as well as his own strong performance in training camp last season, Brock moved up on the depth chart and did not waste the opportunity once given more playing time. He performed extremely well as the 49ers third cornerback and even started seven games in place of the injured starter Brown. Brock showcased excellent cover skills and a knack for finding the ball as he led the team in interceptions with five. If the young defensive back can improve on his performance from 2013 he will surely claim one of the starting spots in the secondary.
Aside from Brock, however, the cornerback position is unsettled to say the least. If it were a year ago Chris Culliver may have been projected to take the other starting spot, but nobody knows if he will be the same player he was before the injury, and then there is also the added uncertainty of his recent legal issues. After Culliver, the depth chart is, in essence, a group of cast-offs with Perrish Cox, Eric Wright and newly-acquired free agent Chris Cook rounding out the bunch. While Wright does have starting experience in the NFL, and he does hold the same name of a former bay area great that once battled the league’s best wideouts, there have been concerns over his ability to keep his off-the-field behavior in check. Cox has played well in spot duty for the 49ers as a slot defender but is far from reliable as a full-time defender out on the perimeter, and Chris Cook, though physically imposing and athletically gifted, has just never been able to put it together at the pro level. With so much unrest at a crucial position, especially in today’s pass-oriented brand of football, San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke has to think about adding insurance in the secondary or facing the possibility of a decline in one of football’s most dominating defenses.
Many draft analysts have taken the stance that selecting a wide receiver in the first round might be more important since the 49ers passing offense has continuously sputtered against the Seahawks superior secondary. While everyone in Niners’ camp would probably agree that another offensive playmaker is needed, the strength of the team is the defense, and it cannot be neglected. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s front seven is possibly the best in the NFL, but the secondary has had its issues in giving up big plays in spurts–most notably in the playoffs. The Seahawks on the other hand, have had no issues in the secondary as they field what is probably the NFL’s best. The self-proclaimed “Legion of Boom” has both size and speed, forcing opposing receivers to work for every single reception. In the NFC Championship, with the Niners threatening, it was the Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman who snuffed out a pass to Michael Crabtree which ultimately sealed the game. San Francisco’s offense will need more depth at receiver in order to seriously threaten Seattle’s defense, but if they cannot stop the Seahawks offense, it will not matter.
the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons are examples of teams which have focused on building their passing offenses through drafting and signing high-profile offensive weapons. Both teams have talented quarterbacks to distribute the ball to elite wide receivers. They can both churn out a lot of yards and put up a lot of points, but neither can stop the other team from doing the same to them. Both teams have some talent on the defensive side of the ball, but are extremely thin at defensive back. As a result, both missed the playoffs last season. Even in previous years, when either team has made the playoffs, they were defeated by superior defensive squads. Last season’s record-breaking pass offense, the Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos, rode a high-octane offense all the way to the Super Bowl until the Seahawks defense dismantled them. The undefeated 2007 New England Patriots slung the ball all over the yard and scored at will en route to the big game but then lost 17-14 to the swarming New York Giants defense. The point is, offense can win games, but strong defense is what wins championships. If the 49ers do not make cornerback top priority in the draft, they run the risk of creating a weak link in their otherwise suffocating defense.
San Francisco does not have a choice until pick No. 30, but, the good news is that this year’s crop of prospects is talent-rich at the cornerback position. Jason Verrett, a talented young corner out of TCU, has been projected as a possible 49ers target by several analysts. Verrett’s tenacity, speed, physicality and ball skills are off the charts, but his small stature has some scouts leery about his ability to play out on the perimeter in the pros. Standing at 5’9” there are some that feel Verrett will not be able to match up with the tall, physically imposing receivers of the NFL, and will be strictly a slot defender who plays on nickel downs. Nobody will argue the kids toughness, however, as Verrett played most of his final collegiate season with a torn labrum. That kind of old-school approach is just the type of thing that can gain the admiration of coach Harbaugh. Add in the fact that the red and gold had a difficult time defending slot receivers last season and the TCU star just might be the pick.
The 49ers have a total of 11 draft picks in their possession and six of those are in the top 100, so Baalke and company have plenty of ammunition to move up to get a desired player if necessary. For example, if an elite cornerback prospect such as Justin Gilbert or Darqueze Dennard happen to slide, general manager Trent Baalke just might swing a deal similar to the one he made with the Cowboys last year to secure rookie pro bowl safety Eric Reid. But if the Niners brass feel like they can get their guy at 30 then they might stay put and choose to bolster the roster with their other five picks through the second and third rounds. They could even trade down and acquire future draft picks to give them the same type of flexibility going forward. No matter what they decide, they have a need to address the cornerback position–maybe more than once.
Though it will be tempting to pull the trigger on a flashy receiver like LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr., or trade up into the top half of the draft to select a premier game-breaker like Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans, this draft is rich in talent at the receiver position and there will be plenty of opportunity for the 49ers to nab a pass catcher in the second round. The fact remains that Colin Kaepernick will be another year along in his progression as a passer, Michael Crabtree is healthy again, and the Niners still have yet to see just what receiver Quinton Patton can contribute to the offense. An improved passing game and the ability to score more points would make San Francisco a scary team, but that is only if they can remain dominant on defense. Until they shore up the holes and answer the questions surrounding the secondary, cornerback should remain the top priority in the upcoming draft.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky