San Francisco 49ers: Predicting Cornerback Depth Chart for 2016
The San Francisco 49ers have 10 cornerbacks competing for roster spots in 2016, here we look at how the depth chart will likely shake out ahead of the new campaign.
Cornerback is a problem area for the San Francisco 49ers going into the 2016 season. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil may have 10 players competing for roster spots, but with the inexperience the Niners have at the position, deciding on a final depth chart promises to be a difficult exercise for Chip Kelly and his staff.
Three of the players vying for a place on the 53 are rookies, while Marcus Cromartie and Chris Davis are practice squad guys pressed into service in 2015 because of injuries.
Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser have all displayed varying degrees of promise but — Ward aside — still have some way to go to establish themselves as dependable NFL corners.
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Tramaine Brock is the Niners’ most experienced cornerback but had an up-and-down year in 2015 and, with San Francisco’s defense potentially coming under more strain as it attempts to support a fast-paced Kelly offense, settling on a depth chart from what looks at this point to be an uninspiring cast will be one of the more important decisions the 49ers make all year.
Performances in training camp and preseason will go a long way to deciding who heads the depth chart in the 2016 season, but let’s take an early guess at the decision Kelly and his staff will make surrounding the cornerbacks come the start of the new term.
Left Cornerback – Tramaine Brock
Right Cornerback – Dontae Johnson
With the 49ers adding three cornerbacks to their roster via the draft, Brock would be forgiven for feeling under pressure going into the new season. However, he remains the most experienced corner of the bunch and is a favorite to lock down one of the starting berths.
Brock is an opportunistic defender who has displayed impressive ball skills since earning regular playing time with the 49ers.
Playing with good instincts and anticipation — particularly when driving on a ball — Brock recorded 15 pass deflections and five interceptions in 2013 before posting 11 passes defensed and three picks last season after an injury-hit 2014.
His durability is a concern, as is Brock’s occasional tendency to get beat deep. Yet, while Brock is far from the quickest corner, his ability to make plays on the ball is too valuable for a defense that will need as many takeaways as possible to be successful for him not to start.
At 5-foot-10 and 197 pounds, Brock does not possess great length, but that is something Dontae Johnson has in spades.
Johnson is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds and has already shown himself to be more than capable of holding up in man-to-man coverage on the outside in his short time in the league.
After a decent rookie year, it was something of a surprise Johnson was not the starter in 2015, with Kenneth Acker preferred ahead of him.
However, when he was given the opportunity to start, Johnson performed well, producing a particularly impressive showing in the 17-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 9 — in which he was able to help keep Julio Jones out of the end zone.
Johnson’s length and leaping ability — he posted a 38.5-inch vertical at the combine — allows him to compete with the bigger receivers and tight ends. He has also shown himself to be quick enough to stay with wideouts on deep routes and gives strong effort in run support, putting up 50 tackles in two seasons.
The former NC State corner has the all-round skill set to be a long-term success in the league and, with Johnson possessing a bulkier frame than the similarly rangy rookie Rashard Robinson, he should be the pick to start alongside Brock in Week 1.
Starter – Jimmie Ward
Backup – Will Redmond
After rebounding from a disappointing rookie year to produce a strong sophomore season, Jimmie Ward’s stock has been on the up.
Ward was excellent in 2015 as the 49ers’ starting nickel corner and the new coaching staff appear very confident in his abilities, having given him work at outside corner during OTAs. Johnson — per Chris Biderman of the Niners Wire — moved to the outside when the 49ers went to the nickel.
And it is not really a surprise to see the Niners testing Ward’s limits after the startling improvements he made last year.
Making strides in his awareness in coverage, Ward was able to hold up against some of the better receivers in the NFL in man-to-man and was not afraid to get physical and drop the hammer when the moment required in order to prevent the catch.
Despite having far from elite speed, Ward did a better job of not allowing separation in 2015, lending credence to the notion that he could play on the outside.
While Brock and Johnson have more experience of operating man-on-man on the fringes, it is feasible Ward will see some at least outside work this season should he continue to impress the coaching staff.
However, his expected primary role will be to lock down the nickel spot he has made his own and that will continue to be the case until rookie Will Redmond is in a position to take over.
The Niners invested a third-round pick in former Mississippi State corner Redmond, however, it may be some time before he can be depended on.
Redmond is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in his final season with the Bulldogs and, not unsurprisingly for a rookie, has plenty of improvements to make before he can see the field on a regular basis.
He has the athleticism to match up with receivers in man coverage and mirror routes, however, Redmond’s film showed a corner who struggled somewhat when presented with wideouts with quick feet.
Awareness and aggression are two hallmarks of Redmond’s game, yet he too often relies on his physicality and has a propensity to overpursue and miss tackles in the running game.
With his man coverage ability, there had been some buzz Redmond could have been a first-rounder had he been healthy. Despite that hype, the best decision the 49ers could make for his development would be to sit Redmond and let him learn from watching the versatile Ward at work.
Kenneth Acker and Rashard Robinson
It is fair to assume there will be around six cornerback roster spots up for grabs in 2016, meaning a quartet of players are poised to miss out on the 53.
And, given Acker’s exploits last season and Robinson’s position as a fourth-round draft pick, Reaser, Prince Charles Iworah, Davis and Cromartie would seem to be the four most likely to fail to make the cut.
Reaser finally saw the field as a pro in 2015 after a 2014 season spent on the sidelines as he rehabbed a torn ACL suffered in college, but it was not extensive action, with Brock, Acker and Ward the preferred trio in nickel and limited opportunities available to him in the dime package.
His pre-injury speed is part of the reason why the Niners spent a fifth-round pick on Reaser and on paper makes him a strong candidate for a slot corner role.
However, both he and Davis gave up a lot of completions in OTAs — per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee — when given work in nickel and, if that continues, expect the Niners to take a chance on Redmond to backup Ward in the slot rather than risk having either of that duo on the field.
Described by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein as a player blessed with remarkable athleticism but questionable awareness, a practice squad berth seems the probable outcome for seventh-round pick Iworah, while it may just be a case of sheer numbers that robs Marcus Cromartie — who deputised admirably in the aforementioned win over the Falcons and, per Barrows, has been doing some work at safety — of a place on the roster.
Acker won the starting role last year when Johnson appeared primed to earn more snaps and posted three interceptions and eight pass deflections.
Those numbers indicate a player with decent ball skills, however, two of those picks came on long throws that were effectively short punts and — after his first 13 games as a 49er, there are plenty of concerns surrounding Acker.
He was more than susceptible to the deep ball in man coverage and Acker often struggled to get in position to make the play and get his head turned to locate the football. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Acker does not have the length of Johnson and, having not really stood out in 2015, could be in for a reduced number of snaps in 2016.
Acker’s role going forward may well depend on how quickly Robinson develops. The former LSU corner has not played competitive football since 2014 because of his well-documented off-the-field issues but has been widely praised since arriving at the 49ers’ facility.
Robinson’s length — he is 6-foot-1 and 171 pounds and has 32 1/4-inch arms — and abilities in press-man coverage, which helped him keep Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans quiet in a hugely impressive performance versus Texas A&M in 2013, have garnered much praise.
A player who operates with a chip on his shoulder and gives his all in run support, Robinson will bring some much needed aggression to the San Francisco secondary, though with only eight college starts to his name, it is tough to envisage him immediately cracking the starting line-up.
While he will need to add more bulk to his frame, Robinson has the skill set and physical makeup teams are looking for in terms of length, expect him to begin as a backup but do not be surprised if he has taken Brock’s place before season’s end.
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All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference and Sports Reference unless otherwise indicated.