The 49ers have a total of 17 defensive backs on the roster at this moment, that’s counting the corner and safety position and all rookies drafted. The 49ers currently list only one of those 17 as a “free safety”, 3 of those 17 as “strong safeties”, 3 are listed as “cornerback” and the 10 remaining players are listed as “defensive backs”.
There will be lots of “open-competition” for what will likely be 5-cornerback spots, 2-strong safety spots and 2-free safety spots available on the 53-man roster heading into the 2014 NFL season.
Of all the 17 “DB’s” listed on the current 49ers roster, only 4 are taller than 6’1. The 49ers secondary will be playing taller and sometimes faster receivers this year and I will say it now, the 49ers secondary will be the key to the overall success of the 49ers defense this year. Your front seven are only as good as your back four. The back four need to step up even more this year.
New Look For 49ers In The Secondary
Eric Reid Jr. and newly aquired Antoine Betha will most likey get the nod at the safety positions. Eric Reid Jr. is the only full-time starter returning to the 49ers secondary. Reid proved he is a big time player that makes big time hits, covers well and has great play recognition. Free-agent signing, Antoine Betha, comes over from the Indianapolis Colts and will have to adjust to the 49ers system. He was signed with the intent he would replace hard hitting Donte Whitner. Both Betha and Whitner have a comparable style, so it will be up to Reid Jr. to help Betha transition over. Reid is 6’1 and Betha is 5’11, but both play with great range on the field and are able to close down on plays quickly, making them big time performers.
Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock were to be the scheduled starters at the cornerback position for the 49ers. Both have been somewhat productive in the secondary over the past 2 years. Culliver is currently a question mark with the hit-and-run charges still unresolved. Culliver missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL and the 49ers were hoping he would be back to start in 2014. Brock started 7 games in 2013 for the 49ers. Brock recorded 5 interceptions and ran one back for a TD. Brock has decent speed but lacks the ideal size to match-up with a Larry Fitzgerald or Brandon Marshall.
Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Eric Wright and C.J. Spillman are some of the recognizable names competing for jobs at the cornerback position this year. L.J. McCray, Darryl Morris, Raymond Ventrone, D.J. Campbell and Craig Dahl are some of the less recognizable names competing for the remaining jobs in the secondary.
Jimmie Ward is a 5-foot 11-inch tall, 192 pound defensive back who played free safety at Northern Illinois University in 2013. The 49ers used their first pick in the draft (number 30 overall) on Ward, who many considered a 2nd or 3rd round talent. Not only were there concerns about his size in the NFL, but there were red-flags about his character. Both head coach Jim Harbaugh and General Manager Trent Baalke raved about Ward’s on-field-motor, his physical nature and the fact he was durable for his entire 4-year college career. Unfortunately, in the NFL, size does matter. Ward played a free-safety role at NIU, however, Eric Reid Jr. and Antoine Betha will most likely be the starters at safety on opening day. That means Ward will be asked to play a cornerback position on the 49ers, maybe some backup safety. When you stack Jimmie Ward up against other NFC West teams third receivers, both the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams pose a legit problem for Ward, who is likey to get time as a nickel corner. The potential for Ward to step in and provide another hard hitter in the secondary is definitely welcomed.
Dontae Johnson is a 6-foot 2-inch tall, 200 pound cornerback who played at North Carolina State in 2013. Johnson was selected in the 4th round, 129th overall. Just in terms of his size, Johnson has the proto-typical NFL cornerback body. Johnson is considered “an athlete” and a “NFL project” in terms of his natural football ability. While there is a lot of room for growth, Johnson will most likely get an opportunity at cornerback this year at some point, but may also receive time on the special-teams. It may be the jump from college to the NFL that may take the most getting-used-to for Johnson. The knock on Johnson is he “takes the cheese” everytime on double-moves by deceptive receivers. The real question is, would Johnson a better cornerback or safety? He will need some time to develop, but I like the potential.
Because he will be placed on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list to begin the season, I won’t really cover Keith Reaser who played at Florida Atlantic and was drafted in the 5th round, 170th overall. A return time from his torn ACL during his senior season is unknown at this point. Drafting injured players with the hope the player will make a full recovery is risky business. We will find out if Marcus Lattimore pays off this year for the 49ers.
Kenneth Acker is a 6-foot, 190 pound cornerback who played at Southern Methodist University in 2013. Acker was selected in the 6th round, 180th overall. It is likely Acker will get more opportunities on special-teams than he will at the cornerback position. Acker has been described as very good in his coverage, recognition and footwork skills as well as route recognition and anticipating the pass. Again, the issue here with Acker, in my opinion, is the size. Line him up against any 3rd or 4th receiver on both Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams roster and it becomes a match-up problem, size-wise.
Overall, the 49ers have added some depth in the secondary thanks to the draft. I still feel the 49ers lack real size to matchup against bigger receivers and the kind of speed they will need to keep up with a Percy Harvin or Desean Jackson this year. The key for the 49ers secondary will be the play of Eric Reid and Antoine Betha.
Though Reid is only a second year player, he did suffer two concussions last year which is a concern and staying healthy will be vital. Antoine Betha has to make the adjustment to a new defensive scheme and new teammates. Should Chris Culliver miss anytime for his legal issues that would mean Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Eric Wright or possibly Jimmie Ward could be called upon.
The names on the list are not all that impressive, most have been career backups that have really underachieved. The 49ers secondary has been a question mark in the past and will remain one for the foreseeable future in 2014.