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San Francisco’s cornerbacks grow up and draft will be examined for competition

Mar 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM

In the year 2000 The San Francisco defense was maligned as being one of the very worse in the NFL, In all consequences it was the very half of the team that struggled all season to find it’s own identity. The black plague of injuries that decimated our defense was unrelenting and without mercy as depth was sacrificed due to the salary cap.

Out of all this gloom came some shining cornerbacks drafted in 2000 to rebuild a secondary that was bleeding without a tourniquet. Even though it bled still in the beginning of the season the second half burst open like the sun coming up for the very first time on a San Francisco morning.

Over the first six games in 2000 the 49er’s surrendered 193 points, 2,472 yards, 1,773 passing yards, 699 rushing yards and totaled only seven sacks. In the final six games of the season the 49er’s allowed a total of 99 points, 1,656 total yards, and 1,050 passing yards, 606 rushing yards and posted 20 sacks.

In the first six weeks of the 2000 season the 49er defense ranked 31st against the pass and 31st overall. Come the final six weeks of the season the defense ranked 13th in passing, eighth against the run and sixth overall.

The highlights of our defense evolved around our rookie class all season, it was an experience in all itself to be able to observe these rookies grow up right before your eyes and come away satisfied that next year would become strength.

I enjoyed immensely watching Cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster make the grade as starting corners for perhaps the greatest franchise in all of professional football. Plummer and Webster in my eyes are the future for our secondary and their skills and abilities will be greatly enhanced after their own baptism of fire.

In 16 games, the 49er’s took 1,096 snaps on defense, including penalties. Six rookies played more then 20 percent of the time and that does not count former starter John Keith. Ahmed Plummer led the rookie class with 996 snaps or 90.8%. Jason Webster took 832 snaps for 75.9%.

With the average age of 24.3, the 49er’s tied (Detroit) for the youngest starting secondary in the NFL. San Francisco had the most rookie starters on defense (five) than any other NFL team that season.

Rookies accounted for 26.8% of the 49er tackles this season, and 13 of the teams 37 sacks, which is 35.1%. Rookies also accounted for 30.7% of the team’s interceptions. Our defense in all aspects was forced to mature in a very limited amount of time and performed admirably in the final six games of the season.

Even though San Francisco plans to start Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster again at both corners it does not rule out the fact that they may bring in another corner from the 2001 NFL Draft to provide intense competition. In fact I would almost count on that they will.

Of the cornerback class Monty Montgomery is an unrestricted free agent meaning he can negotiate and sign with any other team starting after Feb 15th. Montgomery had a mix bag of a report card in 2000. He was not consistent by any means at corner when called upon.

He even spotted duty as a strong safety when Lance Schulters went out due to injury and played a tad better at that position. Montgomery is a solid and hard-hitting defensive back but his instincts and speed are questionable especially after this season.

The Indianapolis Colts in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL Draft drafted Montgomery. He comes out of Houston College and stands 5-11 and weighs 189-pounds, he was signed by the 49er’s as a free agent on (10-04-99) to provide seasoned depth to our secondary.

Montgomery played in nine games this season and garnered three interceptions for a total of 68-yards; he also was in for an assist on a sack. The very likelihood of Montgomery becoming a casualty of the cap is real as his grip on his position slipped due to his inability to shut down one side of the field in the 2000 season.

Should Montgomery be allowed to explore other possibilities? I would say yes due to the above and more so on the very fact that consistency speaks volumes about your abilities and this is something that was constantly apparent in his appearances as part of the starting lineup. Drafting a corner in the later rounds makes perfect sense.

Ohio States Ahmed Plummer came to us in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft he stands 5-11 and weighs 191-pounds. He is an exceptional athlete with quick feet and great balance. His speed is his asset as he was timed at 4.43 in the 40-yard dash. He ranked sixth in school history with 14 interceptions.

Surely we drafted a gem in this athlete in my opinion, even though he struggled in the beginning of the season many quarterbacks out of respect for his college career refused to test him early. In his college career he started 37-of-47 games, including 37 consecutive since sophomore season, he finished with 168 tackles (138 solo) and 14 interceptions.

Plummer started 14 out of 16 games at corner for the 49er’s in 2000 he recorded 68 tackles and led the team’s rookie class. Plummer was the 24th overall pick of the first round in 2000 and Jason Webster was 48th overall, in the second round. Between them they started a combined 24 games and finished with a combined 112 tackles, 20 passes deflected and two interceptions.

I personally believe Plummer can in time legitimately shut down one side of the playing field, his talent as a corner and as a player overall testify to that truth I have been soundly impressed with his closing speed and learning from his past errors.

New Mexico’s Jason Webster is another cornerback that has performed much better from early mistakes, he was selected by the 49er’s in the second round of the 2000 NFL Draft. He stands 5-9 and weighs 180-pounds he is fearless and tough with great body control. He is an exceptional athlete with great speed. He was timed 4.42 in the 40-yard dash, he was also a lethal return man on special teams.

Webster finished the 2000 season with the 49er’s with a team high 13 passes deflected; he was tested more often than was Plummer in the beginning of the season. That evened out over time as quarterbacks were later denied completions on a more consistent basis.

Webster had a total of two interceptions that were brought back for a total of 78-yards. In college he started 36-of-47 games for the Aggies, he finished career with 236 tackles (183 solo) and also had seven interceptions. He had 12 tackles for a loss and 27 passes defended. Webster was so respected by his teammates that he was named team spokesman following the fatal bonfire tragedy that claimed lives at his school that year.

Webster in my opinion brings a hard-hitting toughness to the game that has not been seen since late corner Eric Davis he has a mentality of a determined athlete ready to make his mark on the playing field whenever he steps out onto that field. I have again been impressed with his agility and quickness along with his ability to play bump and run close to any receiver.

In and behind Plummer and Webster for depth is quite solid also barring Monty Montgomery whom is an unrestricted free agent. These athletes have provided emergency assistance in cases of injuries and came out onto the field in nickel packages and performed in a solid fashion.

Weber States Anthony Parker was drafted in the fourth round by the 49er’s in the 1999 NFL Draft. He stands 6-0 and weighs 198-pounds; he is an excellent athlete. Who has great size and speed combined. Very capable of playing bump and run coverage, he has quick feet and good closing speed to boot. In his competition at Weber State College he competed in track and field, with his best even being in the long jump.

Parker was taken out of contention for the starting lineup due to injury in 1999, as he injured his left knee causing him to be placed on the Injured Reserve list that season. He is expected to make a push at either corner for more playing time come 2001.

In his limited appearances in 2000 he was exceptional and provides the team with a different change of pace when warranted Parker could be the dark horse in the secondary lineup as we speak. I expect far better opportunities for this gifted athlete.

Also drafted by the 49er’s in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL Draft was Virginia Tech’s Pierson Prioleau he stands 5-10 and weighs 191-pounds. He is a versatile and dependable performer and has substituted at several different positions on defense. He started at rover back since his sophomore season and has even played outside linebacker.

Prioleau was instrumental in taking over when Safety John Keith was fallen to injury for the season; he played sparingly at safety positions throughout the season opposite Lance Schulters and even Monty Montgomery.

Prioleau has one interception for 13-yards in 2000, while in college he started every game for team that led Big East with 12.9 points per game allowed. His Hokie secondary allowed 182.7 yards per game, second in Big East. He finished with 61 tackles (41 solo) and two interceptions.

Prioleau could be saved solely in the fact that Montgomery is unrestricted or he could eventually be forced out should his playing time fall under scrutiny with competition from a newly drafted corner. One thing that Prioleau has going for him is his ability to play so many different positions making him valuable as closing gaps in depth.

Another cornerback just recently sent to play in NFL Europe is Dee Moronkola who was signed by the 49er’s on Feb. 9th. Moronkola was originally a seventh-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1999. The Bay Area native spent the 1999 season on injured reserve and was on Oakland’s practice squad briefly in 2000. He played college ball at Washington State.

Here is the best opportunity for Moronkola to show his true grain, misfortune has befallen him due to his injury therefore he has never been able to participate on the real playing field of an NFL team. Maybe in Europe he will attain the skills needed to succeed as a professional athlete.

Let’s meet the coach

In the year 2000 this coach came under intense heat and scrutiny from a professional and fan-based standpoint he is none other then Jim Mora Jr. Who head Coach Steve Mariucci has defended steadfastly throughout the season. In fact not many coordinators could have worked with so many different faces and raw rookie talent as Mora had to in 2000.

Jim Mora is in his fourth year with the 49er’s, and his second as defensive coordinator. Mora spent the previous two years as the 49er’s defensive backs coach a position he still has kept upon his promotion to coordinator.

Thirteen years prior, he split time between two teams, the San Diego Chargers (1985-91) and the New Orleans Saints (1992-96).

Mora’s secondary unit tied for first in the National Football Conference and fourth in the NFL with 21 interceptions in 1998, including four players who were credited with four picks apiece. Strong Safety Tim McDonald recorded career-high 4.5 sacks and a career-high 14 passes defended. Mora helped develop Cornerback Darnell Walker, who became a key starter and established career-highs in three categories: tackles, interceptions, and a team-high 32 passes defended.

Also under his tutelage was rookie Cornerback R.W. McQuarters, who started the last seven games of the season and recorded 56 tackles. During Mora’s first season, the 49er’s ranked second in the NFL in passing defense and were tied for second in the league with 25 interceptions.

The development of rookie cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster speak for themselves in my opinion, his tenure as defensive back coach along with being a coordinator in 2000 was well warranted. However the fact of the matter is he needs quality assistance something ownership of the 49er’s has finally recognized and granted a search for.

San Francisco’s defense was stripped of it’s strength and veteran leadership heading into 2000, coupled with a barrage of never ending injuries coinciding with starting as many as five rookies at a time on the defensive unit Mora looked almost angelic.

Mora played defensive back for the University of Washington from 1980-83, appearing in two Rose Bowls with the Huskies. Following graduation, he served one season (1984) on Don James staff as an assistant, helping the squad earn a berth in the Orange Bowl.

Mora has more than proven his patience and durability under fire from both the media and fans unpleasantly upset with the frustration of allowing a team to find itself again through rebuilding. His criticism falls on deaf ears with me as I am honored to have had him in the trenches on the sidelines as we experience the reality of rebuilding a unit decimated by cap issues.

San Francisco should be a player in the market for a cornerback especially should we trade down our first round pick from number #9 and acquire more picks in return. Bill Walsh is famous for doing just this as he did last year. Even though we will not be looking at a starter we will need a quality corner to push what we have in depth.

What scouts are looking for

The NFL averages on cornerbacks are as follows in height a cornerback must average 5-10 in height, 190-pounds in weight and have a 40-yard dash speed of 4.50. The minimum is 5-8 in height, 170-pounds in weight and a 40-yard dash speed of 4.60.

This position has become increasingly tough to fill as wide receivers are coming via the draft in increasing height categories almost always towering over the opposing defensive back.

All true cornerbacks must possess speed, but it is just as important fro them to have the ability to backpedal and turn with flexibility in pass coverage situations. A lot of corners with great speed lose valuable time in the transition as they turn to run with the receiver.

This is how the receiver creates separates; the corner must have great hips and flexibility and also show quick burst and explosion to the ball.

A quality corner must know how to read routes, read the quarterback and get a great jump on the ball. He must be physical and at least adequate at tackling. When force comes to shove though, cover skills will always be more important to NFL coaches than tackling ability. If you get both than that is icing on the cake.

Size is also becoming more of a factor as of late, especially in the red zone, because when you have big receivers like Minnesota’s Randy Moss they can take immediate advantage of a short corner. Big corners are in and short corners are on the way out.

Confidence is also a quality a corner must be able to carry with them. No matter how good he is, he will still get beaten on occasion. Worrying about the last play must not take over the mindset some corners have lost careers because of this very fact.

Top draft prospects

Mississippi’s Fred Smoot ranks at the top of the class for college cornerbacks and he will be able to contribute as a starter right away with any team that considers his services. Smoot stands 5-11.5 and weighs 172-pounds. He has a speed of 4.44 as recorded in the 40-yard dash. He has been compared to none other than Redskin Deion Sanders.

Coverage skills: He is extremely fluid as an athlete. He is quick and shows awesome body control with excellent reflexes. He has the best pure coverage skills of any defensive back in his class. He does lack some size, however, which may make him vulnerable to bigger receivers. But up to now he has yet to show that kind of vulnerability.

Run/pass diagnosis: Smoot does not concern himself with the run, which tells you what he does best. He is not going to be beat by the play-action and he will be stuck to his receiver even if everyone knows it’s a running play.

Closing speed: Smoot has a special burst on the field. He has a great 40-yard dash speed. He is not afraid to take chances as they present themselves which is part of his overall finesse. He even calculates those chances to allow himself to recover should that chance go bad.

Ball skills: Smoot is a playmaker. He has height leaping ability and he goes up and catches the ball at its highest point. He knows how to get position on the receiver and displays excellent hands while battling for the ball.

Run support: As much like Deion Sanders in this area. He is aggressive and arrogant in coverage but when it comes down to covering the run he is the exact opposite. He is very candid about being a part of run defense he literally walks away from it.

Bottom line: Smoot is the type of corner you want on draft day. He easily shakes off bad plays. He is without question one of the most confident players coming out of college today and his skills as a coverage player are undeniable. The one concern is his disinterest in run support and some wonder whether this can be coached into him or not. However whoever can put up with his mouth and allows him to do what he does best playing man-to-man coverage out on an island will be rewarded.

Wisconsin’s Jamar Fletcher is another top prospect at cornerback he stands 5-9 and weighs 180-pounds. He has a recorded 40-yard dash time of 4.46 and he has been compared to Redskins Champ Bailey. He plays with emotion and extreme confidence.

Coverage skills: This is the complete package minus the size. He is quick, fast, aggressive, and confident and has great instincts for the passing game. Fletcher actually plays bigger than his size and is stronger than most his size. An example best tells the scenario when his performance against Michigan’s David Terrell, where he blanketed the 6-2 receiver and basically shut him out of the game. This guarantee’s he will be able to match-up well with any NFL receiver.

Run/pass diagnosis: He does not get tricked often, he knows his position and how to read. He is technically sound and works hard in the film room; it shows itself on the field. He is a bit of a cautious corner when coming to the run and leaving his man behind.

Closing speed: Fletcher is no track star, but he can run with most anyone. He rarely let’s a guy behind him, because he likes to work with enough cushion, he keeps things in front of him and makes great breaks on the short routes.

Ball skills: Here he is a natural playmaker. He has soft hands and overall outstanding ball skills. His lack of height is not noticed in this area, however, he will not make some plays on jump balls that taller corners could.

Run support: He is not afraid to make direct contact here, he is not a big guy, but like Champ Bailey plays bigger than his size suggests and plays with a chip on his shoulder. He may not be an impact player in this area but he certainly is not a liability.

Bottom line: His time to adjusting to life in the NFL will take hardly any time at all, he has the ability to be a real playmaker down the road professionally. He has all the natural tools and it’s not like being short is anything new to him, .He is great at baiting receivers and his very best ability is playing a few inches taller than he actually is. He is a certain first-round draft pick and will hold his own on an island with any receiver.

Ohio State’s Nate Clements rounds out the top trio at this position he stands 5-11.25 and weighs 209-pounds and has a 40-yard dash speed of 4.45. He has been compared to Ravens corner Chris McAllister.

Coverage skills: At this point he is good, but not great in coverage. He does have tremendous size and is learning to use that to his advantage. He has fluid hips for a big corner and can run with most anyone. He has some flaws though as sometimes he misjudges when he should make his breaks. He will over compensate sometimes and play too soft another. Coaching will redefine these areas.

Run/pass diagnosis: He does have some trouble here as well. Has had trouble identifying backfields. To be a true student of the game he will need coaching. He tends to rely on his physical attributes too much.

Closing speed: Clements shows great speed when trying to catch up, which bails him out of some sticky situations. He does not always get decent breaks on the ball, but he does run faster than his 40-yard dash time. He actually runs well with the pads on.

Ball skills: This is his strength, he has awesome hands and leaping ability. He makes a lot of plays in the air and is unafraid to take chances. He loves to challenge receivers for the ball and does so effectively.

Run support: He has great size and strength to make a positive contribution to the run, but he shows only moderate interest. He has been observed in some good battles, but if he is not involved in the game from a coverage standpoint, he will not contribute to the run either.

Bottom line: Clements is big, strong and fast. However even with all this it is his nose for the ball and excellent range that make him a good player. He will get drafted early based on size but it is his ball skills that will shine the most. However he can be too aggressive at times and bites on double moves.

San Francisco will be interested in obtaining another corner but probably not till the later rounds. We are solid in this position for the first time in a long time. Plummer and Webster will without question be more mature and seasoned from battle; I expect real big things to happen from them this season.

However we must not forget the real need is to draft a defensive end that will be a factor in minimizing the pressure on the secondary in 2001. We found this to be more than true on too many plays throughout the 2000 season. Help is what the secondary needs and it did not come often enough from our ends.
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.


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