I spoke to NFL Films' guru Greg Cosell today about the crop of free-agent cornerbacks - arguably the 49ers' biggest problem area with training camp around the corner - including a player who is not technically a free agent but could become one. Nate Clements' 2011 contract is so unwieldy that the 49ers either will have to renegotiate his deal or release him, which would put Clements on the open market.
Cosell didn't mince words about Clements. He didn't think he played very well in 2010 and certainly is not worth anywhere near the money he is scheduled to make in 2011. "I don't view him as a top NFL cornerback at this point in his career," Cosell said. "I don't think he's very quick or fast laterally."
Cosell said the lasting image from Clements in his mind was of Carolina Panthers rookie David Gettis - hardly an elite wideout at this stage - turning Clements around for a touchdown in the Panthers' 23-20 Week 7 win, one of Carolina's two victories of the season. The Panthers' Matt Moore threw for 308 yards in that game and was one of several quarterbacks who torched the 49ers secondary in 2010. Clements and the 49ers also had notable lapses in lopsided losses to the Packers and Chargers.
Cosell wondered if incoming defensive coordinator Vic Fangio intended to use Clements the same way that Green Bay's Dom Capers - whose background is very similar to Fangio's - uses Charles Woodson. Indeed, Clements has struggled in deep coverage at times since joining the 49ers but is very physical, is an excellent tackler and is best around the line of scrimmage.
Of course, no one - perhaps not even Fangio himself - knows exactly what kind of defense he will run this year and how he will utilize his various chess pieces. Back in February Fangio said he would let his players dictate exactly what he will run. Cosell said that Fangio was capable of running multiple schemes and speculated that, like a number of incoming coaches around the league, Fangio would begin the season with a simplified version of the defense and then gradually add to it as he becomes more familiar with his personnel.
Which is to say there isn't a specific "type" of cornerback who especially fits Fangio's style. Here's how Cosell assesses the top names available:
Career starts: 99
Cosell says that Asomugha is clearly the best press/man-to-man cornerback available. He didn't doubt whether Asomugha was capable of playing zone defenses but noted that he simply has not done that in his career. He also questioned whether Asomugha had the build to be a factor in run support. That is, Cosell wondered whether teams that involved their cornerbacks in the running game - like the 49ers have in previous years -- would value Asomugha as highly as other teams.
Career starts: 81
Cosell said Taylor was the most physical and the best in the running game of all the cornerbacks on this list. He has experience with, and has been effective in, every type of coverage although he played more man-to-man last year than at any other point in his career. "If using cornerbacks to stop the run is part of your approach, then Ike Taylor is the best available," Cosell said.
Career starts: 58
Cosell said that Joseph had nice lateral movement and has very fluid hips. He said he was a better athlete than Taylor but not as physical. He has enough skill to be both an effective man-to-man cornerback and to stick his foot in the ground and break on balls in zone coverage.
Career starts: 54
Cosell said that Cromartie absolutely oozes talent but squanders it because he doesn't use proper technique, particularly his hand placement. He also definitely is not a force in the running game (see below). "He makes plays because he has unbelievable talent but he's lazy with his technique," Cosell said. "If Cromartie had the mental discipline, he'd be an elite NFL corner, maybe the best NFL corner."
Career starts: 46
What stands out with Marshall, Cosell said, is his versatility. He can play both the slot and on the outside. "I think he's a good corner, but I don't think he's real strong at playing press (coverage)," Cosell said. "He's a guy who plays off coverage better."
Career starts: 33
Cosell called him an enigma - a guy who "can run like the wind" -- but who until last season, his contract year, did not play to his speed and did not tap his potential. Said Cosell: "He's the kind of guy that coaches will look at and feel that they can get more out of."
-- Matt Barrows