The 49ers have a deep and experienced group of cornerbacks heading into the 2013 season. You have to wonder, however, how much that pool will have evaporated at this time next year. Four of the veterans currently on the roster -- Tarell Brown, Nnamdi Asomugha, Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox (RFA) -- are scheduled to become free agents in March. Another, Carlos Rogers, will have a team-high salary-cap figure of $8.1 million next season.
The only sure-thing at cornerback for the 2014 season is Chris Culliver, and he's coming off the worst game of his career. (Psst: I'm talking about the Super Bowl). Culliver mostly has been a pleasant surprise in two seasons in San Francisco, but he's benefited from an excellent supporting cast and he has not yet proven that he can hold down a starting job.
All of which is to say that the 49ers will face big questions at the position over the next year and they'll have to start answering some of them when cut-down day arrives a month and a half from now. The team kept five cornerbacks on the 53-man roster last season. They'll head into training camp with nine. They are:
Nnamdi Asomugha. He's smart, he's motivated and he'll be allowed to play -- mostly -- the type of press coverage at which he excelled in Oakland. He wasn't able to showcase those skills in the non-contact spring practices. He wasn't tested deep, either. Whether Asomugha, 32, still has the wheels to keep pace with 24-year-old wide receivers is one of the more intriguing questions of the summer. If the answer is yes, he'll be more difficult to re-sign in March.
Tramaine Brock. Little-remembered fact: Brock was leading the NFL in interceptions in 2011 when a broken hand cost him his spot in the lineup. Ok, he only had two interceptions at the time and it was very early in the season. But you have to wonder if Brock, the No. 5 cornerback last season and perhaps the most in danger of being cut this summer, would be in his current position without the injury. Brock may be the most athletic of the group, and he is strong and a good tackler. That makes him a good fit on special teams, which likely is his key to making the roster.
Tarell Brown. The 49ers typically sign players to extensions well before they become free agents. That Brown is entering his contract year likely signals that the 49ers already have decided they can afford to part ways with him in March. That's a shame. With little fanfare, Brown has evolved into a trusted starter and is perhaps the best cover corner on the team right now. At 5-10, 190 pounds, Brown is not the big, aggressive press cornerback that is all the rage in the NFL right now. Perhaps that's the direction the 49ers are heading at the position and perhaps it's why Brown doesn't appear to be in their future.
Perrish Cox. He had only a small role on defense last year, entering games as the team's fourth cornerback when opponents -- such at the Packers -- went with four receivers. Cox has a few things going for him. He is the backup nickel/slot cornerback behind Rogers; at 6-0, 200, he is stout and aggressive enough to play press coverage; he also has the size and speed to excel on special teams. As a restricted free agent, he wouldn't be difficult to bring back in 2014.
Chris Culliver. No, he's not going to be converted into a safety. The 49ers still very much see Culliver as one of their starting cornerbacks for the future. Lapses are to be expected from a young player who played safety at college and who left after his junior season. The 49ers would rather they not come -- in droves -- in the Super Bowl. Is Culliver a starter? The team wants to see more focus and fewer mistakes in his third season. You can bet, however, that opponents will continue to target Culliver the way the Ravens did in February.
Carlos Rogers. As much as fans would like to see Rogers relieved of his nickel cornerback duties, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio last month didn't seem willing to tinker with the veteran's roles. Rogers has been very good as an outside cornerback. (If Anquan Boldin had slightly weaker hands, Rogers would have made one of the biggest defensive plays of the Super Bowl). His ability to keep pace with jitterbug slot receivers, however, is real question mark, and the NFC West is positively infested with that kind of receiver this season. A pitch for Rogers: If the 49ers go with a youth movement in the secondary next season (Donte Whitner also will be a free agent) it would make sense to have a savvy veteran anchor the group.
Others: The team's final draft pick, Marcus Cooper, has excellent size and athleticism, and he will see plenty of action in the second half of the preseason games this season. So will a pair of promising undrafted free agents, Lowell Rose and Darryl Morris. Second-year player Michael Thomas is listed as a safety but plays the nickel cornerback role behind Rogers and Cox. With so many question marks associated with the position next year, it makes sense that the 49ers hold onto some of these young players, perhaps on the practice squad.
--- Matt Barrows