49ers training camp: Cornerback position will be most important to watch

Richard Sherman #25 of the San Francisco 49ers talks to teammate Emmanuel Moseley #41 (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Richard Sherman #25 of the San Francisco 49ers talks to teammate Emmanuel Moseley #41 (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise looks at the 49ers’ fierce competition for the starting cornerback position opposite Richard Sherman.

Going into the 2020 season, we know one thing about the San Francisco 49ers cornerback position, and that is Richard Sherman will start on one side.

Sherman’s 2019 season was a great success, as he posted the highest coverage ranking (88.9) according to Pro Football Focus, playing consistently well throughout the regular season. The secondary, which finished the regular season first in pass defense (169.2 yards per game), showed some vulnerability in the latter part of Super Bowl LVI, but there is little doubt Sherman will be the starter heading into this season.

With Sherman and fellow defensive backs Jaquiski Tartt, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley all set for some form of free agency after this season, there is little doubt there will be changes in the secondary come 2021.

Related Story. 49ers secondary could have overhaul in 2021. light

This season will be huge for the current players in the defensive backfield to secure either a roster spot, either starting or as a reserve, and provide opportunities for incoming undrafted free agents to make an impression on the staff this season and seasons beyond. This position battle promises to be worth watching during training camp, and perhaps a glimpse at what that defensive secondary will look like beyond 2020.

So without further delay, let’s look at the players who will compete for the second cornerback spot this season.

Ahkello Witherspoon

Truth be told, it was tough watching Witherspoon play the second half of the season and playoffs.

After being pulled against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17, the 49ers staff decided to start him against the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round even though Moseley had played better in his place when called upon. After a rough opening two series against Minnesota’s receivers, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had a short leash for Witherspoon, and he was replaced by Moseley for the remainder of that game, who stayed the starter in the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers and in Super Bowl LIV.

Witherspoon initially looked to be the starter of the future for San Francisco after a solid rookie season in 2017, but inconsistent play since then seems to have affected his confidence. Should he struggle again during this camp or get outplayed by someone, his opportunity to play or stay on the roster when Week 1 rolls around may run out.

Emmanuel Moseley

Moseley, a former UDFA, had a solid season after replacing Witherspoon. His 70.0 PFF rating was in the same realm to more heralded players, the Los Angeles Rams’ Jalen Ramsey (71.5) and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Joe Haden (70.3). While Moseley had a few lapses, none more costly than in the Super Bowl, he also had a great pass breakup versus Seahawks wide receiver D.K. Metcalf near the goal line in Week 17 that helped the team secure the No. 1 overall seed.

All told, the arrow is pointing up for Moseley, and he could unseat Witherspoon permanently and become the starter in 2020.

Tim Harris

The unknown player.

Many may not know Tim Harris, the 6-foot-2,197-pound cornerback from Virginia taken in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. After all, after battling injuries in college, he was placed on injured reserve last year and missed the season entirely. But his size and 4.45 40-yard time have Saleh hoping he can stay healthy and put up a fight for a starting job in the secondary in 2020.

Is it a long shot? Yeah, but his physicality and ball-tracking skills on the edge may give him a chance. If Moseley or Witherspoon falter in any way during camp, the door will at least be open for Harris to walk through and land the position.

DeMarkus Acy

Rookie DeMarkus Acy brings a skill set that belies that of an average UDFA. Although the Missouri product had a better 2018 than his senior season, he has ideal size (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) to fit the 49ers defensive scheme. He also shows physicality even though he lacks strength right now to challenge pro wideouts at the line of scrimmage.

If he can add some bulk and hone his technique to cover for a lack of speed (and he has Richard Sherman as a mentor), there is a slim chance Acy can push the competition and battle for a roster spot. If he were able to show versatility and the pass-breakup ability he showed in college, combined with the potential losses after this season in the secondary, perhaps Acy can surprise and be a starter now or down the line.

With so much uncertainty with the pandemic’s possible effect on next year’s salary cap, and with the bulk of the Niners secondary set for some form or another of free agency, change seems almost inevitable for a squad that ranked first in 2019 in fewest yards passing allowed per game.

Perhaps general manager John Lynch has an ace up his sleeve that allowed him to pass on drafting a corner in this year’s draft, or maybe the coaching staff feels comfortable with the talent currently on the team.

Either way, these four players should take the opportunity presented to them to try to lock down the second cornerback position across from Sherman. And should Sherman leave after the season, it could boost them into the No. 1 corner spot.

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The competition here will be something to keep an eye on as training camp gets underway. As Hall of Fame wideout Terrell Owens once said, “Get your popcorn ready!”