For the first time in the Harbaugh/Baalke era the team's defense is in a bit of flux, particularly the secondary. Sure there were a lot of question marks leading into Harbaugh's first season with the additions of Carlos Rodgers and Donte Whitner. However, Rogers and Whitner for the most part were acceptable contributors to their previous teams. Now as the 49ers enter 2014, the big question is whether or not the gamble will pay off. With one of the better pass rushes in the NFL; the 49ers have never had to ask a lot of their secondary. Sadly, the pass rush itself might be in flux with the looming suspension of Aldon Smith and Navarro Bowman missing most of the season. This puts more pressure on a revamped secondary. Let's break down this new secondary and see some of the upside and downside to the changes.
Addition: Antoine Bethea SS
Deletion: Donte Whitner SS
This move had little to do about money, because Bethea signed for nearly the same amount that Whitner got in Cleveland. The biggest reason this signing makes sense is that Bethea is a much more controlled player. In the age of protecting defenseless receivers, Whitner never seemed to adjust his hitting angles. In 2013, Whitner was called for numerous personal fouls, including one in the NFC championship. All signs point to Bethea being a much smarter player, as his 2013 stats indicate that Bethea was not called for one penalty in comparison to Whitner's eight. This includes five for unnecessary roughness, one for taunting, and one for unsportsmanlike conduct. Seven of those eight penalties are all 15 yard and automatic first down penalties. While most fans loved Whitner's style, it appears the coaches wanted a smarter player that didn't keep the defense on the field. The upside is that Bethea has a quietly good season, picks up a few interceptions and can help improve our coverage against routes down the middle. The downside could be that he ends up hurt, forcing the team to move Jimmie Ward to safety and completely shuffling our secondary plans for 2014.
Addition: Tramaine Brock CB
Deletion: Terrell Brown CB
While this really doesn't count as true addition, since Brock started some of the season while Brown was injured in 2013. Brock showed instantly a nose for the ball that Brown simply didn't have. Proof being in week five against the Houston Texans, taking an interception back for a touchdown and securing another later in the game. While Brown was a serviceable starter, his statistics with the 49ers where never mind blowing. With his best season coming in 2011 when more teams started throwing away from Carlos Rogers during his breakout season. In 2012, his last full season as a starter for the 49ers, he had 56 tackles and two interceptions. Brock started the last five games of the 2013 season and recorded on the season 37 tackles and five interceptions. These stats alone might prove that the 49ers believe he is an upgrade over Brown. Not to mention the team was able to sign Brock to a very cap friendly deal for the next four years. Something they were not going to get with Brown, especially after the workout bonus debacle of 2013. Upside for Brock is a season much like 2013, where he quietly picks up four or five interceptions. The downside is that his current ankle injury lingers into the regular season and doesn't allow for him to play well the first few weeks.
Addition: Chris Culliver
Deletion: Carlos Rogers
Another partial addition, Culliver missed the 2013 campaign with an injured knee. However, even with a forgettable Super Bowl performance against the Ravens, Culliver had a promising season as the team's dime back in 2012. During part time duties in 2012 he recorded 47 tackles and two interceptions. Rogers, who was released to save money under the salary cap, was a valuable player in nickel situations as he moved to the slot. However, he never was able to match his 2011 production and only finished 2013 with 47 tackles and 2 interceptions. Nearly identical statistics to Culliver as a part time player in 2012. If Culliver's knee is healed and the 49ers can get nearly identical production from him, there shouldn't be too much of a drop off from Rogers to Culliver. The biggest question mark for Culliver is if he will become more intelligent off the field. His off the field issues include controversial statements prior to the Super Bowl with his remarks on homosexuality and most recently being arrested for hit and run and possession of brass knuckles. Culliver needs to show maturity to ensure he is a 49er long term, not to mention backing it up on the field. Upside for Culliver is no suspension by the league, starts every game and puts together a season much like 2012. Downside is a two game suspension and possibly losing his job to a player like Chris Cook who has the talent to play with the first team.
Addition: Jimmie Ward
Deletion: Carlos Rogers
I list Rogers here twice because of the important role he played shifting into the slot during the nickel situations of the game. Considering the team was in this situation 60 percent of the time last season, this is a major role for the young rookie. While normally a strong safety, Ward is being thrown in at the nickel because of his nose for the ball. The biggest question is if the 49ers reached a bit high for him in the first round, especially in such a deep defensive back draft. The upside is that Ward steps in from day one, records 3-5 interceptions, records 30-50 tackles, and can hold up against the run. All while learning to be the backup Strong Safety as well. The downside is he loses the job to Chris Cook or Perish Cox and spends a year playing special teams and situational dime packages. As a fan, I can appreciate the historical significance of the Ward pick. In 1981, the 49ers took a safety in the first round and asked him to play cornerback. That man's name was Ronnie Lott. I think that one worked out pretty well. It's too early to make that comparison of course, as only time will tell how Ward pans out.
Addition: Chris Cook
The former Minnesota Viking has had a lack luster career. The former 34th overall pick in 2010, Cook has yet to record an interception in a regular season game. However, he is currently the biggest cornerback on the team at 6 feet, 2 inches and 212 pounds, here on a one year contract; the 49ers are looking at him as a physical corner. He is tall, big and has decent speed. If Cook can develop an eye for the ball, he could take Perish Cox's position on the team. There is proof that he has the skills to do so, since he recorded seven interceptions during his 31 starts in college. The Cook signing has a lot of potential as he will be playing with a much better team than in Minnesota. The upside to Cook is that he will become our dime back and play a lot, especially when the 49ers play passing teams like the Eagles and Broncos. Downside is he doesn't make the team as a player like Dontae Johnson plays better in the preseason and the 49ers look to keep valuable special teams players like Darryl Morris and/or C.J. Spillman instead.
Addition: Dontae Johnson
This addition might be one of the most interesting additions from the 2014 draft. Interesting as in he is over six feet tall and comes in at 200 pounds. While the NFL network's Matt Mayock is quoted as saying, "He's a better athlete than a football player. You just have to develop this kid." That might be the way Johnson is handled since the team used a 4th round pick on him this year. One thing is for sure, that the addition of Johnson and Cook, the 49ers are exploring the idea of deploying an army of "Richard Sherman-esqe" players. In an increasing passing league, teams will need a secondary that can fight for balls against the bigger receivers, but also have the speed to keep up with the quick slot guys that are in vogue. Johnson is more than likely going to push for a spot on the team if he can provide help on special teams. While he has potential, I think he makes the team simply because the 49ers won't risk exposing him to the waiver wire to put him on the practice squad. This means a guy like Darryl Morris might be in jeopardy depending on how the roster numbers shake out. The biggest question for Morris is his Special Teams value. Do the 49ers love him more than C.J. Spillman?
The Stalwart: Eric Reid
It's hard to describe 2nd year Pro Bowl Safety Eric Reid as the Stalwart of the defense, but after starting all 19 games for the 49ers last year and playing at an elite level for the majority of the season. Another tall player at over six feet, Reid shows ability and a nose for the ball by recording four interceptions during his rookie season, while also adding 77 tackles. The only drawback on Reid might be the concussion issue. Suffering two in his rookie year is troublesome, as it will cause him to change his play style or it might cost him his promising career. With the addition of Bethea playing next to him, look for Reid to take the next step as a player as he learns from a savvy veteran. The upside for him is an identical season to his rookie year. The downside is an injury that keeps him out for multiple games and exposes us to starting Craig Dahl. That in itself is a potential huge downside.