When the 2014 season began, the 49ers figured to feature Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver as starting cornerbacks and rookie Jimmie Ward as the team’s nickelback.
Those plans were obliterated almost from the beginning, as Brock was immediately sidelined with turf toe. Brock saw action in three games and was never healthy enough to play at a high level.
Perrish Cox took over for Brock and played well for most of the season before sustaining a shoulder injury late in the season. Culliver sat out a couple of games. Ward missed half of the season with a foot injury. And veteran backup Chris Cook saw action in just six games before sustaining a season-ending hamstring injury.
Unexpectedly, rookie Dontae Johnson saw significant action throughout the season. And late-season additions Marcus Cromartie and Leon McFadden played a lot in the 49ers’ final game. Cromartie, McFadden and Cameron Fuller were in-season pickups to the 53-man roster despite never spending a day with the 49ers in the offseason.
Cornerback figures to be near the top of the list of the 49ers’ needs this offseason with Cox and Culliver scheduled for unrestricted free agency.
“You look league-wide, it’s been a tricky position for a lot of teams this year,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke told CSNBayArea.com before the final game of the season. “There’ve been a lot of injuries. The depth you need to have currently in the National Football League because of the increased use of the nickel and dime packages has put more of a premium on depth at that position. You saw this year where it got the best of some teams.”
Shockingly, the team’s pass defense was among the 49ers’ strength last season. The 49ers ranked fifth-best in the NFL, allowing 220.7 yards passing. Moreover, the 49ers led the league with 23 interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks managed a combined passer rating of 79.4 for the season.
The secondary was probably the area in which the 49ers’ coaching staff had its biggest successes with position coaches Ed Donatell, Greg Jackson and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Former New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, who has served the past five seasons as Atlanta’s secondary coach, takes over that position with the 49ers under new coordinator Eric Mangini.
“You saw us playing with some guys who weren’t even on this football team at the start of the year and going out there and playing,” Baalke said. “I think you’re seeing that trend league-wide. There’s a premium put on those players. It’s going to be extremely important moving forward to create as much depth and competition at that position as you can.”
Brock, Johnson and Ward are the top returning cover men who are currently under contract for next season. Baalke said he is encouraged by what he saw from two 2014 draft picks, Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser. Acker played well in the exhibition season before he was placed on injured reserve with a stress fracture in his foot. Reaser spent his rookie season rehabbing from ACL surgery.
“You’re never going to have all first-round picks at that position,” Baalke said. “It’s a position you’re going to have to develop players and develop as much depth as you can because of the way the game has changed.”