The San Francisco 49ers short lived acquisition of cornerback Eric Wright was a puzzling move given the depth the team already has at the position. Wright, who had 1-year and 1.5 million dollars left on his deal, would have been the fifth corner competing for a starting spot along with Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, and Nnamdi Asomugha. The attempted move signaled that maybe the 49ers were not happy with one or more of that group of players. Even with the Wright deal voided, questions still remain at cornerback, especially long term.
For all of the criticism the secondary took during the playoffs, the unit played very well during the regular season in 2012. The 49ers allowed 200.2 yards passing per game (good for fourth in the league) and held opposing quarterbacks to a 78.0 passing rating. They were also the only team in the NFL to not allow a touchdown pass of more than 40 yards.
Things took a turn south during the playoffs though as the once consistent unit surrendered 306 yards per game and allowed a passer rating of 109.5. They also allowed two touchdown passes of over 40 yards in three games. A factor for this drop in production could have been due to the lack of pass rush after injuries to Justin Smith and Aldon Smith slowed them down significantly. The 49ers gave the impression they felt the lack of pressure was more of the issue as they drafted defensive lineman Tank Carradine and outside linebacker Corey Lemonier, both of whom provide depth and can be used in a specialized role in passing situations early on.
That makes the Wright move even more puzzling. If the 49ers felt they needed an upgrade at cornerback, why not address it earlier in the offseason? Did they see something in mini camps that worried them? Wright would have made more sense if he was signed past this season. Instead, he would have been another corner with major question marks after 2013.
Rogers is in the second year of a new contract but his play slipped last season. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said he still considers Rogers his best cover man in the slot although the 49ers seemed to have trouble covering slot receivers. They were burned by Victor Cruz in the 2011 NFC championship game and saw other slot receivers have big days in 2012 including an eleven catch performance from Danny Amendola. Rogers is expendable after this season as his cap hit will drop, making him a candidate for release. He will need to play at a high level in 2013 for the 49ers to justify keeping him around next year.
Brown appears to be the cornerback on the safest footing. He is coming off arguably his strongest season and, at 28 years old, he is in a contract year and looking to cash in. The incentive is there for Brown to continue to perform well but his status with the team beyond this year is also an unknown. The 49ers have looming contract extensions for Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati. Brown may be a casualty as the 49ers are better suited keeping most or all of those core players. If the market softens for Brown, he could come back on a short term deal but this may also be his last season in red and gold.
Culliver’s struggles in the playoffs were well noted and the 49ers were not happy about comments he made prior to the Super Bowl. The negative postseason overshadowed the fact that he performed well in 2012. He played 63.2 of the teams defensive snaps as the number three cornerback and showed promise. What Culliver has going for him is that he is signed for next year and factors into the teams plans for multiple seasons. If he puts last year behind him and continues to grow he could easily step in and start for the Niners in the coming years.
Asomugha is the biggest question mark of the bunch. He was signed by the 49ers after being released by the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason. Asomugha never lived up to his promise in Philly and was disappointing in both seasons with the Eagles. The scheme could have been part of the issue in Philadelphia as they played a lot of off coverage and zone. At 6’2 and 215 pounds, Asomugha is someone who is better suited to play physical with receivers and could be a nice fit for what the 49ers want to do defensively. His no risk contract makes him a nice luxury for San Francisco but he must win a starting job to stick around as he has very little value in terms of special teams. Reserve corners such as Tramaine Brock or Perrish Cox may prove to be more valuable to keep as a fifth cornerback because they can help on special teams as well.
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