Shoddy cornerback play initially derailed DeMeco Ryans’ first season as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.
From pass-interference penalties to blown coverages, that unit earned scapegoat status for a 3-5 start, which began in staggering fashion with Jason Verrett’s knee injury in the season opener.
“Our guys have a chance to be really good,” Ryans said at minicamp this week. “I like where we are.
“It’s going to be great to see those guys coming into (training) camp when it’s real football and time to talk off. I’m excited for where they are and they can still improve. It’s going to be exciting to watch that.”
Excited is a better word than “dreading” potential showdowns this season against elite receivers. The NFC West is packed with pass-catching power couples on the Rams (Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson), the Cardinals (DeAndre Hopkins, Marquise Brown) and the Seahawks (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett). Also on the schedule: Davante Adams (Raiders), Tyreek Hill (Dolphins), and many more nightmares.
At least this year’s collection of 49ers cornerbacks seems more up for those challengers.
Then again, today’s NFL pits all cornerbacks in too many no-win situations, and fantasy football isn’t exactly ranking cornerbacks.
Here is a glimpse at how the 49ers’ seemingly restocked and upgraded cornerback unit looks:
Signed for big money ($26 million guaranteed) from the Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers’ marquee free agent this offseason is lining up on the right side. At least he did in organized team activites. He took minicamp practice off to rest his body.
Ward comes with elite press-coverage skills that are atypical to this scheme, but he’s willing to share.
“We all give each other tips and pointers,” Ward said. “We have different bodies, different techniques. We’re all learning from each other. I’m a four-year veteran so I’m trying to give tips.”
Chiefs fans howled at Ward’s quote this past week, when asked if Trey Lance shares similarities with Chiefs counterpart Patrick Mahomes. Ward sounded complimentary (with a touch of humor) rather than degrading when he replied: “Both of them are going to be great quarterbacks. They’re light-skinned, great quarterbacks, that’s the similarities.”
Minicamp saw Moseley repeatedly make plays and provide tight coverage. After starting 28 games over the past three seasons (and missing six last year with ankle and knee injuries), Moseley is the starting left cornerback, unless Ambry Thomas steals that job in camp. Moseley started eight games at that spot last year (including all three playoff games), and he has the versatility to bounce inside against slot receivers if the 49ers want Thomas outside in their nickel package.
“E-man has done a really great job this entire offseason,” said Ryans. Moseley is entering the final season of a two-year contract.
A ghost early in his rookie season, the third-round pick from Michigan finished strong. He started the final five games of the regular season and made an overtime interception in the playoff-clinching finale at the Rams. He hasn’t been as handsy in practices this spring.
“A.T., he earned that opportunity there as he kept coming through the season,” defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said. “He didn’t play in 2020 (COVID opt-out at Michigan) so that gap, it’s a long time when you sit out a year. Once he got up to speed and was playing fast enough, and then to play in big games, that was more important than anything for his growth. We definitely feel he’s on the rise.”
A late-season cameo rejuvenated Dennard’s career, and he’s gotten first crack at the nickel back spot to replace K’Waun Williams (Denver Broncos). That, however, does not guarantee Dennard a job, not with the bevy of young options learning the role nor with the versatility others have. Dennard is playing strictly inside against slot receivers.
SAM WOMACK IIIA fifth-round draft pick out of Toledo, he’s making a charge to win that nickel back spot. Holy Toledo!
“I’m super impressed with his ability to operate,” Undlin said last month. “Listen, it’s not perfect, and I’m talking more so about technique stuff. About getting lined up and knowing what to do, he’s been on it, which has been really impressive.”
A sixth-round pick out of Penn State, he’s willing to be aggressive with his 6-foot-1 frame. He’s been lining up at right cornerback, essentially on the third-string unit. How the 23-year-old rookie fares on special teams could determine a Week 1 roster spot.
He’s still battling to regain stature that saw him start the first two games last season – then no more, as he drew three pass-interference calls as a rookie. Lenoir gave up touchdown passes against Nate Sudfeld in 7-on-7 red-zone work Tuesday. He’s also an option at nickel back, so he’ll have to prepare for inside and outside work. He lined up on the right side Wednesday.
Yes, a ninth-year veteran deserves higher billing than this, but odds are the 49ers will send out their young cornerbacks before him. Then again, Johnson has played 103 games since debuting in 2014 with the 49ers, plus last season’s three playoff games, one of which he started. He had nine special-teams tackles last season, and his versatility saw him line up at nickel back, safety and linebacker in minicamp.
Tuesday’s red-zone drill saw Hollman swipe a potential Trey Lance touchdown pass out of Brandon Aiyuk’s grip for an interception, then Hollman had quality coverage on another boundary play in the end zone.
The undrafted rookie from UCLA should at least make the practice squad with his nickel back ability. Two weeks ago, he made the best play of practice by intercepting a Brock Purdy pass that deflected off running back Ty Davis-Price.
He might be No. 1 on this list, had it not been for the anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee in last year’s opening win at Detroit. He’s still favoring that leg and was not cleared for offseason workouts. If he’s not cleared come training camp, he’d be a logical candidate to open the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list and debut, say, Oct. 30 against the Rams. He played in 13 games in 2020, and 13 in 2015 (for the Chargers), but only 13 in his other five combined seasons since 2014. He’s a sage voice and highly respected asset. Does he have one more comeback in him? Does this unit?
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