The only consistent aspect of the cornerback play for the 49ers in 2018 was inconsistency. The group was dead last in the league when it managed to muster a whopping zero interceptions for the entire season. Despite finishing 11th in the league with an average of 233 pass yards allowed per game, it gave up the second-most touchdown passes with 35. Much of the success of the defense will rest upon the shoulders of the cornerbacks taking the next step. Here is a breakdown of projected starters and backups with training camp right around the corner.

Projected to Start

Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, K'Waun Williams

Richard Sherman, the elder statesman of the group, was the most reliable player but still had his down moments while recovering from an Achilles' injury. When forced into matchups with bigger and faster receivers, Sherman struggled to keep up down the field. However, he appears to be back to full speed in his second year removed from surgery. His leadership presence and steadfast play will be necessary to keep the boat steady as defensive coordinator Robert Saleh enters his third year at the helm.

One of the great "what ifs" of the last couple seasons, Jason Verrett is a former first-round pick with immense amounts of talent who just cannot seem to stay healthy. After a disappointing run with the Los Angeles Chargers, he comes to the 49ers on a one-year, prove-it contract. Verrett has shown flashes of being a legitimate shutdown corner but has only played 25 games since entering the league in 2014. If he can live up to his potential, he could end up being one the best steals of the entire free agency class.

The nickel corner spot has been filled by K'Waun Williams since he was one of the first signings of the Shanahan/Lynch era. A fearless tackler with underrated ball skills, Williams has been one of the top performers for Saleh year in and year out. His lone career interception came in 2017 during the 49ers' five-game win streak to end the season. With receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cooper Kupp on the schedule, Williams will need to be a dependable force in the slot.

Projected as a Backup

Ahkello Witherspoon, Tim Harris, D.J. Reed

Ahkello Witherspoon, like many of his 49ers teammates, entered last season riding a high from a strong finish in 2017. Unfortunately, he fell in and out of favor with the coaching staff that resulted in his bouncing in and out of the lineup. Prior to being shutdown following a knee injury, Witherspoon was playing much better than fans gave him credit for. He is the most likely individual to challenge Jason Verrett for the starting spot opposite Richard Sherman with a new set of secondary coaches.

D.J. Reed and Tim Harris are both recent draft picks who fit the ideal physical profiles of nickel and outside corner respectively. Reed played nearly as much safety as he did slot corner out of necessity while the safety position was ravaged by injuries. His play was not overtly inspiring but the front office cannot be ready to move on from him just yet. Reed also provides talent in the return game that could end up saving his roster spot. Harris, a rookie from the University of Virginia, comes with a long injury history which seems par for the course to fit in with the rest of the secondary. His length and physicality make him a low-risk, high-reward pick whose floor is contributing immediately on special teams. His spot on this year's roster is safe.

Fighting for a Roster Spot

Greg Mabin, Dontae Johnson, Emmanuel Moseley, Alex Brown

There isn't much to say about this group. None are likely to be serious competition for the other corners already mentioned. The name that will stick out to most 49ers' fans is Dontae Johnson. Brought in as a camp body, he will certainly bring up bad memories of him getting torched during his first tenure with the team. There may be a riot at Levi's Stadium if he is given a roster spot and playing time.

Greg Mabin and Emmanuel Moseley both failed to impress during their stints with the team. Mabin, who started while Witherspoon was benched, is a glaring reason why the 49ers were unable to come away with a win in Green Bay last season. Moseley was only active for one game in 2018 despite injuries a plenty all throughout the secondary. He does not figure into the team's long-term plans.

Alex Brown is an undrafted rookie who earned a shot during the rookie minicamp. He projects as a slot corner candidate but in all likelihood, he is only a camp body who may have a puncher's chance at the practice squad.

Summary


All told, injuries will be the major storyline throughout the 2019 season. The secondary is slated to benefit greatly from the improved pass rush; however, it still needs to play up to its abilities in order to make the biggest impact. Sherman will be leaned on more than he has been in the past because the talent level is not the same as he had during his time with the "Legion of Boom." Luckily for this group, the only way to go is up.

Next: Safeties
  • Matthew Barr
  • Written by:
    Matthew Barr has been writing for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub since 2018 and co-hosts the 4th and Gold podcast which can be found on all podcast platforms. He can be found on Twitter fighting an endless battle to get the underscore removed from his handle, @MattBarr_.