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News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

July 16, 2009
Position-by-position: Covering the cornerbacks

The image most people have of a cornerback is someone who is not only self-confident, but cocky and brazen to the point of it being comical. The truth is that most aren't in the Deion Sanders vein at all. In fact, since I've been covering the 49ers, not a single cornerback has lived up to that "cornerback" reputation. Ahmed Plummer had a delicate psyche. Jason Webster was confident, but he also warm and personable. Shawntae Spencer has the same outlook on life as Eeyore.

This year, however, the 49ers may be getting a double dose of that Deion-like swagger. Tarell Brown and Dre Bly seem to be carbon copies of one another. The difference is that Brown has youth on his side while Bly has experience. That they're competing for the same spot makes it one of the more interesting position battles of the summer. The "loser" of the battle will be the team's third cornerback, which traditionally sees plenty of playing time, especially in a division that features the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams. Here are the 49ers' top three cornerbacks, who also happen to be the top three alphabetically ...

  • Dre Bly. 5-10, 188. The question about Bly is why he was still available when Walt Harris went down with an ACL tear in May. One reason is that he's the same age as his jersey number - 32. Another may be that no one wanted any part of a player from Denver's 2008 defense. The Broncos finished 29th in total defense and gave up more points than any team save Detroit and St. Louis.

    Bly looked very good in spring drills, keeping pace with the 49ers' speediest wideouts and picking off a pass or two in the process. If the 49ers' defense is going to become one of the league's elite units like it hopes, it has to create more turnovers. Bly and safety Dashon Goldson were added to the lineup with that in mind. And what of Bly's over-the-top confidence? The truth is that the 49ers could use a little spice in their rather staid locker room. That Bly signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum is a sign that he's motivated.

  • Tarell Brown. 5-10, 193. As good as Bly looked this spring, he did not pull away from Brown, who matched him step for step. Brown didn't see much playing time as a rookie in 2007, but last year he was on the field a lot as the team's nickel cornerback. Over the past few years, the 49ers have accumulated cornerbacks - Nate Clements, Marcus Hudson, Reggie Smith and, to a lesser extent, Walt Harris - with size. Brown gives the defense something those other players don't have - quickness. That ability to make tight cuts and to break on the ball quickly led to two interceptions last season. The second one sealed a late-season win against the Rams. The team's braintrust is very high on Brown.
  • Nate Clements. 6-0, 205. When the receiver you are primarily responsible for covering goes for 213 yards and a touchdown, it doesn't make you look very good. When that receiver is Terrell Owens and every eyeball in the sports world is watching, you really suffer. Such was Nate Clements' experience during a Week 12 game in Irving, Texas last season. Clements, the team's $80 million man, was roundly criticized in the media following that game. Afterward, his coaches and teammates defended him, arguing that Owens' monster game wasn't Clements' fault. Indeed, safety Keith Lewis had deep coverage on Owens' 75-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, and he didn't show up in time. Lewis is no longer on the squad ...

    The truth is that Clements has been very solid for the 49ers. He's a smart player and he's the understood captain of the secondary. He's been very low-keyed with the media, but it's clear he's held in very high esteem by his teammates. His gigantic salary has not dulled his work ethic. The question is whether he's worth the massive free-agent contract he got in 2007. Just like 2008's big addition, Justin Smith, Clements is a relentless worker, who's never going to embarrass the team and who sets an excellent example for every young player on the roster. But like Smith, he is not known as a big-play maker. Clements had two interceptions last season. And for what he's making, you might expect more.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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