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Mark J. Rebilas-USA Today Sports

The Curious Case of the 49ers’ Secondary

Stewart M. Cockrell
Aug 12, 2014 at 11:38 AM

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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
Deletion: None

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.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • David
    Dont get me wrong... I like Culliver, but I hate dbs who get burned deep. He killed us in the Super Bowl. He has all the talent to be a star, but mentally he is a mess. As far as Terell Brown... great cover corner, but too short. I saw mutiple times where he is right there, but an inch or two too short. Lastly, i think Romo will torch our secondary, but we will prevail because their defense is terrible.
    Aug 13, 2014 at 10:54 PM
  • mbniner
    I don't think that Dahl will make the final 53. Spillman is too valuable as a STer and has great speed. He has looked decent at S, certainly as good as Dahl, with a big upside.
    Aug 13, 2014 at 9:55 AM
  • Craig
    I enjoyed the article. It looks like injuries are the biggest worry, but I thik the secondary should be good. In response to @dantherman, I agree in that I also worry about Culliver. However I do remember a timely pick in the NFC Championship game against ATL. With ATL up 3 in the 3rd, having just crossed into SF territory he had a big INT to stop the drive.
    Aug 12, 2014 at 4:14 PM
  • Marquis Grissom
    Good article, but the truth is none of it will matter when the 49ers lose to the Chiefs at home thanks to a fired up Alex Smith and a supremely over-confident CK7. #CK7humblingcoming
    Aug 12, 2014 at 1:48 PM
  • rkshanny
    "Let's break down this new secondary . . . " I hope the words "break down" don't turn out to be prophetic!
    Aug 12, 2014 at 1:21 PM
  • Matt
    Bethea actually was almost 1 million per year cheaper than Whitner, so that had to be part of the equation.
    Aug 12, 2014 at 1:01 PM
    Response: True, a million is a million is a million. I think the 49ers would easily trade a million a year if it meant one more win here and there. That is the difference between home field and being a wildcard team.
  • dantheman
    Is it just me, or has Chris Culliver ever shown any ability to cover? All I ever saw was Culliver getting beat, playing 5-10 yards off receivers and usually getting burned deep, and not just in the superbowl. I don't recall ever seeing him make a timely pick or pass break up. Why is everyone so hot on him? I'm afraid he's our weak link of the DB's... I have more confidence in Cook or Cox than I do Culliver.. add in his off the field antics and it's a total shock that he's still on the team..
    Aug 12, 2014 at 12:26 PM
    Response: I tend to agree with you. My thoughts are that the 49ers are still very high on him. If you recall the 49ers were trying to get Rogers to take a pay cut or risk getting cut last off season. Culliver goes down and then suddenly they have to keep him. I think we are right to be cautiously optimistic about him.
  • bret
    I doubt Morris is jeopardy. He is younger and faster than Cox and I think he gets grabbed if released. I believe he'll end up the back-up slot corner and a special teams contributer. With Cox, you know what you're getting, and he's at an age where he can help the roster now, but won't ever be developed into anything more than he is. Don't get me wrong, I like Cox, I just find it hard to believe that the 49er's decision makers will think any differently than I am. It comes down to 5 corners: Brock, Culliver, Cook, Johnson and Morris, plus 3 safeties: Reid, Bethea, Ward (who's also a corner) plus either Spillman or Dahl depending on who they're more comfortable with as the last back-up plus special teams ace. While I would tend to believe Spillman would be the one to stay, it seems to me I read somewhere (one of the Matts?) that the brass wasn't too happy with Spillman's work toward mastering his defensive assignments.
    Aug 12, 2014 at 12:23 PM
    Response: You make a good point. My only thoughts on Cox is his punt return ability as a bit of insurance. But that is negated assuming that James returns healthy and/or Ellington continues to develop. I think Morris has huge potential and is supposed to be supper fast, so he could stick as a gunner on special teams. I wasn't aware about Spillman's issues with the defensive assignments, but I do know he is valuable on special teams. With Osgood as good as gone, I think he special teams ace might go to Spillmam simply because there is less need to have 6 or 7 WR.

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