SANTA CLARA – They were both sixth-round draft picks who entered the NFL with little fanfare or expectations.
One is now a Pro Bowl wide receiver after working his way into becoming one of the top playmakers in the NFL. The other is a cornerback with one career start. He is the most anonymous starter on a defense that has undergone a dramatic makeover in the past year.
Kenneth Acker won the 49ers’ starting job at right cornerback over veteran Shareece Wright and two others, Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser, from the 2014 draft class selected ahead of him.
After a successful first game on Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, Acker will often find himself matched in coverage against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ outstanding wide receiver Antonio Brown on Sunday.
Brown has recorded 1,000-yard seasons in three of the past four seasons. He averaged 120 receptions for 1,600 yards over the last two seasons.
And he got off to another strong start in the Steelers’ opener with nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in a 28-21 loss to the New England Patriots last Thursday. On Tuesday morning, Brown began watching film of Acker, who made his NFL regular-season debut in the NFL’s final game of Week 1.
“They’re doing some positive things,” Brown said of the 49ers' cornerbacks. “I’m studying those guys this week and looking forward to a great matchup.”
Acker (6 foot, 195 pounds) entered the NFL as the No. 180 overall selection in last year’s draft from Southern Methodist.
In 2010, the Steelers drafted Brown with the No. 195 pick. Brown probably did not rate as a top draft prospect due to his size (5-10, 180) and the competition he faced at Central Michigan of the Mid-American Conference.
The Steelers selected wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the third round that year. The Steelers doubled-up on wideouts when Brown was still available late in the draft. While Sanders’ best season in four years with the Steelers was in 2013 with 67 receptions for 740 yards, Brown has become a star in the league.
“He’s extremely talented, in terms of short-area quickness and body control,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “And he has good and strong hands. But I think probably the most defining thing about him is his approach to work.
“He’s as hard a worker as we’ve had in the nine years I’ve been here on a day-in and day-out basis. That’s his calling card. I describe him as a better worker than player. And I mean it.”
And it’s Acker’s off-the-field approach that enabled him to make his quick rise up the 49ers’ depth chart, too.
“He’s very athletic,” 49ers linebacker Michael Wilhoite said of Acker. “He pays attention to the details. He’s focused in meetings. I think he’s a business-like guy. He comes to work and works hard, and I think that’s just how our defense and how our team is.
“I feel like we’re just a bunch of grind-it-out guys. We work hard. We don’t pay attention to the distractions and we keep moving forward and I think he’s that same type of guy. I think it’s obvious in his play.”
Acker had an impressive rookie training camp to put himself in position to win a spot on the 49ers’ 53-man roster. The 49ers ended up stashing him on injured reserve for the season when he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right foot.
Acker said he believes his "redshirt" season gave him a great foundation from which to begin his quest for a starting role this season.
“I think that year off, knowing that I wanted to be on the field, of course, but it helped me a lot, learning calls, learning the system, traveling with the team, having everything like that,” Acker said. “It put me in a situation where I was comfortable coming into the position. It was like it was my first time out there.”
The challenge in his first game was nothing compared to what it could be on Sunday. On 39 snaps in coverage, Acker allowed just three completions for 24 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was often hurried against a strong 49ers’ pass rush, and the 49ers' secondary benefitted.
“I didn’t think they were challenged because of what was going on up front,” Tomlin said of the 49ers’ cornerbacks.
That will certainly not be the case on Sunday, even with a lot of help from the 49ers' pass rush. Acker faces a huge challenge against Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Brown.