The 49ers have blown up the secondary they built in 2011 and that ranked in the top 10 in pass defense the past two seasons. But if you thought that unit was going to be great when it was assembled back then, you are either clairvoyant or -- more likely - a big, fat liar.
One of the starting cornerbacks in 2011, Tarell Brown, had started five games in his previous four seasons in the league and none in 2010. He only got the job because Shawntae Spencer pulled his hamstring in training camp. The other, Carlos Rogers, was considered a first-round bust in Washington and was best known for dropping would-be interceptions at inopportune times. Rogers was so lightly regarded that he lasted more than a week in free agency before the 49ers signed him to a one-year deal.
Rogers finished the season with six interceptions and started in the Pro Bowl. Brown started all 18 games and finished with five interceptions, including one in the playoffs.
At safety, the 49ers brought in one experienced starter in Donte Whitner. But there was not a big demand for the undersized, over-drafted Whitner on the free-agent market and he, too, lasted several days before being signed. On other side, Madieu Williams (yes, Madieu Williams; I double-checked it) started the first two games before Dashon Goldson took over. Whitner would go on to have the most iconic defensive play of the 49ers' playoff run when he knocked Saints running back Pierre Thomas out of the game on New Orleans' opening drive. Goldson tied with Rogers for the team lead with six interceptions and, like Rogers, made his first Pro Bowl. The 49ers tied for the league lead in takeaways.
All of which is to say this: It's impossible to judge a team or a unit until they, you know, actually start playing. The fan conclusion after nearly a week of free agency is that the 49ers have taken a step backward. I say, wait until September - or better yet, December - to make that assessment. With the team just a little less than $4 million under the salary cap, it is unlikely to make a splashy move in the secondary. There are still some cornerbacks on the market, but they are either out of San Francisco's price range (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), age range (Champ Bailey), have flaws (Terrell Thomas, multiple ACL tears) or are inexperienced (Aaron Berry). Rogers also remains unsigned.
The 49ers also still have the draft. Two names likely to be bandied about over the next month and a half are Jason Verrett of TCU and Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech. Both are cornerbacks who are capable of playing in the slot, where Rogers played the last three seasons.
Most of all, the 49ers have two very good coaches - Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell - overseeing the secondary. Perhaps Frangio's greatest achievement in three seasons with the 49ers is that, with limited time in the lockout-shortened 2011 offseason, he put the right players in all the right spaces. He has a full offseason this year. Fans should have confidence he will do the same by September 7.
As expected, newly added cornerback Chris Cook signed a one-year deal for the league minimum $730,000, according to NFLPA records. He will count $570,000 against the salary cap.
-- Matt Barrows