The addition of veteran cornerback Eric Wright to the 49ers’ 53-man roster, which will become official in the next couple of days, is one of the most intriguing second-half storylines for the team’s defense.
Wright, 28, has started 81 games in his six-year NFL career. And the 49ers pursued him as a free agent following the 2011 season before he signed a five-year, $35.295 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After Wright’s one season with the Buccaneers, the 49ers and Buccaneers agreed on a trade. But the 49ers voided the deal when Wright failed a physical. The 49ers determined he would not be available to play football for a while. They ultimately signed him to a one-year year contract and he began the season on the reserve/non-football illness list.
The 21-day practice window on Wright closes on Tuesday, and the 49ers plan to activate him to the 53-man roster. During the week in London, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Wright was not yet comfortable in the 49ers’ defensive system but envisioned him as a contributor before the end of the season.
“But he’s a guy who we think once he kind of grasps it, he’ll grow leaps and bounds quickly because he’s played in the league,” Fangio said.
Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have played well as the starters, and Tramaine Brock’s performance as the No. 3 cornerback has kept veteran Nnamdi Asomugha inactive – and seemingly expendable.
When asked if it will take an injury for Wright to get his chance, Fangio said, “Sometimes, it’s attrition. Sometimes if he shows that he can play better than who we have playing, that’s the guy that we’ll play.”
Here are some other changes that are coming for the 49ers’ defense in the second half of the season:
Smith’s return: Outside linebacker Aldon Smith rejoins the team this week and has been cleared to resume practice after being activated off the non-football illness list. The 49ers have compensated for Smith’s absence over the past five games with Dan Skuta playing base downs and rookie Corey Lemonier handling the duties in the 49ers’ nickel defense.
At this point, it seems to be a football decision as to when Smith is available to play in games. And it’s reasonable to think if Smith is in uniform, Fangio will play him nearly every snap next Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
Tank in the mix: The 49ers activated rookie defensive lineman Tank Carradine to the 53-man roster last week. It’s uncertain whether he will initially be active for games. He is returning to action after sustaining a torn ACL on Nov. 23, which ended his final season at Florida State.
The 49ers thought so highly of Carradine they invested a second-round draft pick in him, with full knowledge that Carradine might be available for only half of his rookie season. With McDonald playing through a partially torn right upper biceps tendon that will require offseason surgery, Carradine could be asked to play a major role as the season progresses. Carradine gives the 49ers a lot of versatility due to his ability to play both end spots in their base defense and all positions on their four-man line in passing situations.
Moody returns: The 49ers on Saturday waived inside linebacker Nate Stupar. The club expects to activate rookie Nick Moody from injured reserve designated for return. This move will have little impact on defense, as Michael Wilhoite remains the 49ers’ first inside linebacker off the sideline. But Moody is expected to resume his role as a core special-teams performer upon his return.