Sakamoto: 49ers cornerbacks win coaching staff over with fundamentals

Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Speed. Instincts. Agility. These are three intangibles every scout looks for when evaluating cornerbacks. A cornerback needs speed to mirror fast wide receivers. A cornerback needs a high football IQ to anticipate route recognition. And a cornerback needs loose hip flexors to change directions at the drop of a dime.

However, in my opinion no skill set is more important than fundamentals. A solid cornerback can get by with marginal quickness, marginal instincts, and marginal agility, if he’s fundamentally sound. A prime example of this was when the San Francisco 49ers first drafted CB Ahmed Plummer back in 2000.

If you remember, Plummer was highly regarded as the most NFL-ready cornerback coming out, despite being the third cornerback taken off the board. Why? Because he was a true-technician of the game.

I hate to say it but fundamentals have become a lost art in today’s NFL. Today, we are seeing more underclassmen enter the NFL draft than in year’s past, and that greatly hampers a player’s development. Niners GM John Lynch, echoed the importance of the lost art in our annual pre-training camp interview.


“I think one of Kyle’s strengths that really fits in line with the history of this place, [Hall of Fame 49ers head coach] Bill Walsh was known for it, noted for it, you have to learn how to practice and he stressed that a lot in the offseason. I was really excited to see the speed in which we practiced. When you can make things as close to game conditions as possible, obviously there’s no pads, but we teach tackling. 

The fundamentals are taught on this staff and we do it at an incredibly high rate of speed and so that helps ease that transition and I think helps you project, but there is always that unknown,” Lynch said. 

Plummer entered the 2000 NFL draft as a senior and endured early success in San Francisco compared to Carolina Panthers first-round pick (No. 23) CB Rashard Anderson. In Plummer’s first four seasons, he racked up 270 tackles, 12 interceptions and 59 PBU’s. Compare that stat line to Anderson who finished with 66 tackles, 1 interception and 6 PBU’s before running himself out of the league after only two seasons, and you can see where the value of fundamentals lie.

On the surface, one would fall in love with Anderson’s size for the position. At 6-2, 205, with a 123-inch broad jump, it’s not surprising to see an NFL team take a risk on a player’s upside rather than drafting a sure thing (Plummer). He had the prototype size and length that scouts covet. But one thing that was sorely missing from his game was fundamentals.

Fast forward to present day, and the 49ers have a plethora of young cornerbacks to coach up.

From CB Dontae Johnson to rookie CB Akhello Witherspoon, the 49ers young secondary must separate themselves from the rest of the pack as they fight for the No. 2 role opposite of second-year CB Rashard Robinson. And it all starts with fundamentals.

I’m going to throw out the prototype, measurables, and intangibles that 49ers scouts rave about, since eight cornerbacks were taken in the last four drafts. Instead my focus will be on the fundamentals. After all, part of any learning curve is understanding the minute details of the position.

When evaluating any cornerback you need to see how well they play in four techniques. Press-man, press-zone, off-man, and off-zone. I will explain them all in greater detail, but for the sake of this article, I will strictly focus on press coverage since that’s what 49ers DBC Jeff Hafley tends to favor.

Press-man coverage is when the cornerback is lined up directly across from the wide receiver usually in bump-and-run. The whole purpose of press-man is to disrupt the timing between quarterback and receiver. In order to accomplish this action it requires fundamentals at the LOS (line of scrimmage).

1. Do the cornerbacks keep their shoulder’s squared at the LOS?

This is extremely important. Just like in basketball when coming off a screen, a cornerback shoulders must be squared in order to maintain proper leverage throughout the jam. If they don’t, they are susceptible to opening up their hips too early defeating the purpose of the initial play-call.

2. Do their feet remain patient?

Many times over I have seen cornerbacks get happy feet when they are up in press coverage. Whether taking false steps or giving up too much ground off the release, it’s imperative that the cornerback maintain patient feet throughout, as they try to flat-line the receiver laterally.

3. Do they use proper hand-placement?

Using the proper hand to jam or disrupt the timing of the receiver coming out of his stem (route-tree) is key. Whether playing with outside integrity (forcing player back inside) in a press cover-2 or simply playing straight up in press cover-0, the cornerback must be fundamentally sound when jamming the receiver off the line.

These three techniques are the building blocks for a strong press cover corner. There are more nuances that go into the process after that and it starts with pad-level.

Secondary Fundamentals

Once the receiver comes off the line, the cornerback must keep his pads low maintaining a smooth cadence in his backpedal. From there he must have the COD (Change of Direction) skills to shadow the receiver downfield. Once the ball is up in the air, the fundamentals of locating man then ball come into play. From there it comes down to receptions, interceptions or PBUs depending on your closing speed.

However, it’s important to note that if you get too far up vertically on the receiver, you put yourself at a disadvantage. How? Because then the wide-receiver has the luxury of running back play-side toward the line of scrimmage, allowing himself a safe cushion for an easy catch. Instead the fundamentally thing to do is stay on his hip slightly in a trail position throughout the play.

Now that we understand the basics of press-coverage, you’re probably wondering which 49ers cornerbacks are the most fundamentally sound when it comes to press? As of right now my top two choices would be Robinson and Johnson.

As the 49ers continue to groom their young but very talented core of cornerbacks, it will be interesting to see who wins the starting role opposite of Robinson as the position is up for grabs.

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.