The 49ers have exactly two spots in their secondary nailed down for the 2014 season. Eric Reid will play free safety while Tramaine Brock will start at one of the cornerback spots (The versatile Brock can play either side). The other positions are up in the air at this point, including the increasingly critical nickel role.
Carlos Rogers, who is due to count a team-high $8.1 million toward the salary cap, has manned the nickel spot for the last three seasons. Perrish Cox also played there. Despite what Trent Baalke said last week, Cox is a restricted free agent, which means the 49ers will be able to get him back if they want him. Two others capable of moving to nickel, Tarell Brown and Eric Wright, will be unrestricted free agents next month.
* Last week, NFL Network's Mike Mayock cited two players, TCU's Jason Verrett and Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner, he thought could play nickel at the next level. Verrett was one of the standouts of the combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds, leaping 39 inches in the vertical jump and otherwise looking cat-quick and fluid throughout. Verrett is feisty and a willing tackler, and in that way would make a good slot cornerback. The caveat is that at 5-9 he's a little guy.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has preferred bigger-body players at the position. Rogers and Cox, for example, both are 6 feet. That goes for playing on the outside as well. The league trend (See: Seahawks, Seattle) is for bigger cornerbacks, and that's who the 49ers have drafted (Chris Culliver, Marcus Cooper) in recent years and gone after in free agency (Rogers, Nnamdi Asomugha, looked at Sean Smith). Verrett has a small, wirey frame, which when coupled with his aggressive nature could lead to injuries. Indeed he has a shoulder injury that may or may not require surgery next month. (You could argue, of course, that given the 49ers' last two drafts the prospect of surgery will vault him up GM Trent Baalke's draft list). The other caveat is that Verrett may not be around at pick No. 30. Look at the impact he makes in the above video. (Also look for LSU WR Odell Beckham, another possibility at pick No. 30).
* Joyner, who played in various spots in the Seminoles' secondary, including safety, is extremely aggressive and a very good tackler. But he also is very short, measuring in at 5-8. Donte Whitner is considered a short safety. By comparison, he was a little more than 5-10 when he went to the combine in 2006. If Joyner played nickel cornerback, you can't help but think that opponents quickly would exploit his lack of height by matching him against taller opponents.
* If the 49ers want a bigger-bodied cornerback, three jump out: Lindenwood's Pierre Desir (6-1, 191, 33-inch arms), Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-2 5/8, 218, 32 3/8) and Utah's Keith McGill (6-3 3/8, 211, 33 ¼). None of those players was particularly fast in the 40-yard dash, but neither was Richard Sherman in 2011. All are big-bodied players who can obstruct and redirect receivers with their long arms. At the Senior Bowl last month, Desir showed he could compete against big-school receivers, and he's generally considered the best of the three mentioned. All are thought to be mid-round picks.
The strength of the cornerback draft appears to be in rounds two through five. There are many, many players to consider, including Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller and, later in the draft, Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy, who compares to the 49ers' Brown. One who has flown under the radar (and whom I've seen a lot because of my previous Brandin Cooks infatuation) is Oregon State's Rashaad Reynolds. He's 5-10, 189 pounds with 31 5/8-inch arms. He also is a former wrestler who hoisted 225 pounds 20 times on the bench press, one of the best marks for a defensive back. That is, he's strong and a good tackler. He may have gone under the radar - media-wise, at least - because he played at Oregon State.
* Something to keep an eye on when it comes to free agency is whether the 49ers bring back Cox or Wright (or both). Wright is a favorite of Baalke's. The coaching staff (namely Fangio), however, preferred Cox. Is this an example of the tension between the personnel department and the coaching staff? Will Baalke force the issue by bringing back Wright but not Cox? Stay tuned.
- Matt Barrows