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April 7, 2014
Single high? New CB Cook suggests changes in store for 49ers defense

Last month Jim Harbaugh hinted about changes to the 49ers offense. Could the team's defense also be in for a tweak or two?

Newly-signed cornerback Chris Cook suggested as much when he spoke about being used in a "single-high" defensive scheme. That's the formation with which the Seahawks have had so much success, one that often uses a single safety, Earl Thomas, in coverage so that the other safety, Kam Chancellor is free to crowd the line of scrimmage. It also is used in conjunction with Seattle's big, physical cornerbacks playing press coverage.

"They want me to be the press guy," the 6-2, 212-pound Cook said last month of the 49ers' plans for him. "And that's what I like to do. I feel like I'll fit in well with the one-high (safety) scheme that they like to run. I came from a two-high scheme. And I feel like a one-high scheme and a man-to-man scheme fits me well."

The Seahawks' style of defense, of course, is all the rage after a 2013 season in which they finished first in total defense, first in pass defense and annihilated Denver's offense in the Super Bowl. Chancellor in particular has been effective against the 49ers' only true down-field threat, tight end Vernon Davis. His receiving statistics in three meetings last season: 3 catches for 20 yards, 2 catches for 21 yards and 2 catches for 16 yards.

The 49ers' interest in tall, press cornerbacks also makes a one-high scheme seem like a possibility. In addition to signing Cook, the team has looked closely at Clemson cornerback Bashaud Breeland, one of several press-style cornerbacks who could be taken in the second round of this year's draft. (More on that below).

Still, just as it's hard to see Harbaugh fully utilizing three-wide receiver sets after a long history of favoring a power-running game, it's also difficult to envision wholesale changes for Vic Fangio's defense, which has finished 4th, 3rd and 5th in the NFL over the last three seasons. And while the 49ers have two very good safeties in Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid, the Seahawks' duo is particularly well-suited for playing the single-high safety style.

Instead, it's likely the 49ers want to add more single-high elements to their overall scheme. Or they could consider using a single-high, press-coverage element on one half of the field. Remember, Cook signed a one-year deal for the league minimum. It's entirely possible he's not on the team at all in September.

I spoke to a league observer today who has a very good grasp of cornerbacks. He said he thinks five cornerbacks will be taken in the first round next month with perhaps five or six players at the position going in the second round.

Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Jason Verrett, TCU
Bradley Roby, Ohio State

Jaylen Watkins, Florida
Pierre Desir, Lindenwood
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
Bashaud Breeland, Clemson
E.J. Gaines, Missouri
Keith McGill, Utah (2nd-3rd)

Most of the players in the second round are tall and long-limbed like Cook. All of them specialize in press coverage. That is, if that's the type of cornerback the 49ers are aiming for, the second round may hold the best value.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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