Breaking down 49ers’ 2019 position battle at nickel cornerback

The San Francisco 49ers will likely look at boundary cornerbacks via free agency or the 2019 NFL Draft. But there’s a brewing battle at nickel corner this offseason.

Cornerback is going to be an interesting position of need for the San Francisco 49ers this offseason.

Outside of veteran corner Richard Sherman, the Niners experienced very little production and consistency over the course of 2018. San Francisco generated just two interceptions on the year, and neither came from its crop of cornerbacks. And while a good chunk of the attention and criticism fell on the outside corners behind Sherman, what happens on the inside could be just as interesting heading into the offseason.

As of now, the 49ers have two capable starters at nickel cornerback: K’Waun Williams and the 2018 rookie, D.J. Reed.

One might guess the younger, cheaper Reed would be the eventual long-term option. He’s still on his rookie contract, while Williams is signed through 2020. If Williams is cut after June 1, the Niners would save $1.85 million in cap space in 2019 with $750,000 in dead money, per Over the Cap.

Yet both players graded out similarly last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Williams received a 66.7 overall grade on the year, while Reed’s mark was two-tenths of a point behind at 66.5.

Williams was one of general manager John Lynch’s first free-agent signings back in 2017. Reed’s development and emergence could push Williams out of the picture, provided there aren’t any offseason additions through free agency or the NFL Draft.

Free agency, though, could provide some options. One of the targets San Francisco could pursue is the Chicago Bears’ Bryce Callahan, who was PFF’s seventh highest-graded corner in 2018. Nickel cornerbacks don’t typically command the same kind of money as boundary corners, so one shouldn’t automatically assume the 49ers targeting Callahan would proverbially break the bank.

As far as the draft, it’s highly unlikely San Francisco uses its first pick (No. 2 overall) on a cornerback, particularly for the slot.

So that means Round 2 (No. 36 overall) at the soonest, and even that’s a stretch. Notre Dame’s Julian Love is a possible third-round addition, while Ohio State’s Kendall Sheffield is a plausible target in Rounds 3 or 4.

In all likelihood, though, the Niners would only target a nickel corner in the draft if the acquisition would be meant for long-term depth. Reed, despite some early issues during the regular season, appeared far more comfortable once he moved to nickel and ended up starting two games there.

And unless San Francisco is enthralled with the idea of bringing Callahan aboard, it’s likely this 2019 position battle will primarily feature both Williams and Reed.

For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, subscribe
to PFF’s EDGE or ELITE subscriptions at ProFootballFocus.com.