Over the next few weeks, I'll take a position-by-position look at the 49ers roster with an eye on the upcoming season and beyond. Today we examine the situation at cornerback.
Signed for 2014: Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Carlos Rogers, Darryl Morris, Dax Swanson
Pending free agents: Tarell Brown, Perrish Cox (restricted free agent), Eric Wright
Outlook: First the good news at the position: Brock began the season as a relative unknown, started 10 games, led the team with five interceptions, tipped the pass against Atlanta that NaVorro Bowman returned for a touchdown and signed a contract extension that keeps him around through the 2017 season. Brock isn't tall at 5-9 ½. But he's very strong, has long arms (Trent Baalke looooooves long arms) is quick and aggressive. And he's young. Brock will turn 26 in August. In short, the 49ers appear to have secured one of their starting cornerbacks for the future.
The other starter and the all-important nickel cornerback? They are up in the air. Culliver is the favorite to play opposite Brock in 2014. He is on schedule to return from an ACL tear suffered early in training camp. But despite advances in the treatment of ACL's, they still are tricky injuries and more than 20 percent of players still do not fully return from the injury. Which is to say, you might be able to write Culliver's name in pencil as far as the 2014 starting lineup, but it's too early to write it in pen.
So who else is a candidate? Brown started the last three seasons at right cornerback but, barring a late change of heart by the organization, appears destined to leave via free agency. Cox likely will be easy to re-sign if the 49ers want him back. But they cut him in November before bringing him back just before the playoffs.
The team also will not have much competition in free agency for Wright, a player for whom the front office, at least, had high hopes when he was added to the 53-man roster in November. Cox, however, overtook Wright at cornerback during the run-up to the Wild-card playoff game against the Packers. I'm told the competition was close but that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio simply had more confidence in Cox. Bottom line: The 49ers coaches liked a player, Cox, they felt was expendable at one point in the season better than they liked Wright.
Which brings us to Rogers, who has been the de facto captain of the cornerbacks since he arrived in 2011. If both he and safety Donte Whitner (a pending free agent) leave this offseason, the 49ers will have a dearth of experience and leadership in the secondary. The problem is that Rogers, 32, stands to count a team-leading $8 million against the salary cap in 2014. Last year, the 49ers asked Rogers to take a pay cut or risk being released. He called their bluff and played in 2013 on a $6.25 million salary.
Rogers told The Bee this month he expects the team to again ask him to reduce his salary. He said he's not sure yet how he'll respond but that he'll sit down with his agent and work out a plan. "Last year, we just felt that, you know, looking at the corners out there and looking at the average of what they were being paid and asked, 'Am I an average corner?'" Rogers said. "'Am I above average? And what's the market for a corner?' If you feel you can go somewhere else and at least make average, why not try and go somewhere else and at least make average?"
Rogers noted that he plays both left cornerback and nickel cornerback. "The last three years, I played the most snaps on this whole team, period," he said. "Why would I take less? That was our approach last year. This year? It may be something different. I know the average for a cornerback - the average - is still high."
Youth Watch - Baalke and the 49ers may have a blind spot when it comes to drafting wide receivers, but they've been very good when it comes to cornerbacks, even after the draft. Brock, for example, was an undrafted rookie in 2010. Two others this past year, seventh-round pick Marcus Cooper and undrafted Morris, also made impacts. Cooper was signed by the Chiefs after the 49ers released him before the regular season. He ended up playing in all 17 of Kansas City's games, starting six and finishing with three interceptions. Cooper, like the rest of the Chiefs defense, lapsed toward the end of the season and in the playoffs, but it was a promising rookie season for the big cornerback. Morris, meanwhile, is the fastest player on the 49ers and had a very good year on special teams. Given his lack of experience playing NFL cornerback, he's a dark horse to have a role on defense in 2014. Then again, he's one of only a few cornerbacks the 49ers have signed moving forward.
Bottom line: Aside from Brock, the 49ers have all sorts of questions at cornerback. Some of those questions will be answered in free agency. Still, look for the team to use one of its high draft picks and - if recent history serves - one of its late picks at the position. This is considered a good year for cornerbacks, and the 49ers are very much interested in tall, physical press players (just like every other team in the league these days).
Previous position analyses:
-- Matt Barrows