Losing both starting cornerbacks is never an ideal situation, but the decision to cut ties with CB Perrish Cox and CB Chris Culliver may have been an easy one to make for San Francisco 49ers GM Trent Baalke.
Consider that Cox had been nothing more than a role player for most of his career, and his overall play slipped after a strong start last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Cox’s coverage grade for week’s 1-6 was +6.2, but was a -12.0 for the rest of his 49ers’ career. The Tennessee Titans ultimately overpaid for him at three years and $15 million in free agency, which was a contract that San Francisco would never match.
Culliver was a bit of a different story though, as his strong play in 2014 indicated that he was a player whose arrow was pointing up. Culliver had a coverage grade of +8.2 last season which was good for the 13th best in the NFL. While he would have been a solid piece to the defense moving forward, he was also overpaid on the open market by a Washington team that gave him a four-year $32 million deal with $16 million guaranteed.
Even though the 49ers may have been justified in letting both players go, they still have the task of replacing them. While there’s still a possibility the team could take a corner in the upcoming NFL draft, the likelihood of that appears slim due to the number of corners they already have competing on their roster.
When you take a deeper look at the competition, the first thing that jumps out is that (if healthy) CB Tramaine Brock and DB Jimmie Ward look like locks to be in the top three on the depth chart. Brock will man one of the outside spots and Ward will slide into the slot in the nickel package. Beyond those two though, there looks to be five other viable options who will be jockeying for position.
The vets of the group are CB Shareece Wright and CB Chris Cook, each of who are signed on one-year, “prove it” type deals. Wright struggled while starting for the San Diego Chargers, and graded out in the bottom 10 of amongst cornerbacks in 2013 (-11.1) and 2014 (-16.4).
Cook hadn’t fared much better in 2013 while he was with the Minnesota Vikings, as quarterbacks posted a 140.3 rating throwing his way. He seemed to pick up his play last year with the 49ers though, before an injury cut short his season after six games. Cook has never recorded an interception in 40 career appearances.
Beyond Wright and Cook will be three second-year players, all of whom the 49ers appear very high on.
CB Dontae Johnson received valuable playing time because of injuries in 2014, and showed flashes that he could be a viable starter. He did struggle at the end of the season though, including a -5.0 grade in the last game.
Competing with Johnson will be CB Kenneth Acker and CB Keith Reaser, who each missed their rookie years because of injury. Acker was impressive during the preseason before a stress fracture in his foot landed him on injured reserve, while Reaser was basically redshirted as he recovered from an ACL injury.
Considering the approach to cornerback, it’s easy to see how someone could get the impression that the 49ers are just throwing a lot of players at the wall and seeing what sticks. But remember, Baalke has had an excellent track record at identifying corners who are good fits within the team’s system (i.e Carlos Rogers, Culliver, Brock, etc) and there could a more than one diamond in the rough amongst this group.