It has been a long time since the cornerback position could be considered an area of strength for the 49ers. Last season, their lack of depth at the position was glaringly exposed as injuries threatened to derail San Francisco’s campaign.
The Niners made moves this offseason to ensure their corner depth is much stronger and, while their secondary might not be in the running for the league’s elite, it is difficult to see how San Francisco’s corner play won’t be better in 2022.
While the starters at corner are likely set, there will be some intriguing battles at the bottom of the depth chart during training camp and preseason, with rookies and veterans both in the mix for backup spots.
Though camp is still a few weeks off, let’s look at how the cornerback depth chart could shake out.
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San Francisco’s big-ticket free-agent signing’s two biggest selling points are the flexibility he gives them and his on-ball skills.
The flexibility comes in the ability to play more man coverage, which is the strength of Ward’s game, and his comfort in the slot, which will potentially allow the Niners to move either him or Emmanuel Moseley inside on nickel downs and deploy Ambry Thomas at one of the outside corner spots.
Ward has four interceptions in his NFL career but has registered 10 pass breakups twice in the past three seasons. With the pressure the Niners can generate with their front four, Ward should get opportunities to add to his career interceptions tally, while his skill set gives DeMeco Ryans – who has already emerged as one of the more inventive defensive coordinators in the league – more avenues through which to stymie opposing quarterbacks.
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Moseley may not receive the same level of attention as some of his teammates on defense, but his value was illustrated as the Niners often floundered in the secondary during the six games he was out through injury last season. Despite his time on the sidelines, Moseley registered a career-high 11 pass breakups and his passer rating when targeted of 65.6 was also the best of his NFL career. In other words, Moseley is a corner who continues to improve year on year. With the versatility to play on the outside as well as in the slot, Moseley will again be a starter in 2022 and one the Niners need on the field for the defense to perform at its best.
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Between his initial failure to get on the field at the start of the season and then his struggles when Moseley’s injury pressed him into a starting role, it at many points looked as if Thomas would have little chance of being a long-term factor for the 49er defense. However, the Niners stuck with their 2021 third-round pick and saw a crucial improvement, the high point of his season his playoff berth-clinching overtime interception against the Los Angeles Rams. Coverage was rarely the issue for Thomas, who instead had to shake off poor play at the catch point to make strides down the stretch. Should that development continue and the extra weight he has added in the offseason pay dividends, the 49ers will have an intriguing top-three at the position on their hands.
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Lenoir looked as if he would be the pick of San Francisco’s rookie corners early last season following an impressive game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2. Yet, after some struggles in Week 3 in a loss to the Green Bay Packers, the fifth-round pick was never quite able to win back the faith of the coaching staff. Lenoir brings inside-out versatility but, with the Niners adding two more rookies to the mix in this draft, including a nickel in the form of Samuel Womack, there is significant competition for places at the bottom of the depth chart. Lenoir’s spot is far from secure.
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The 49ers can’t quit Jason Verrett, and it’s easy to understand why. When Verrett was healthy for 13 games in 2020, he was outstanding, recording seven pass breakups and two interceptions and providing San Francisco with a superb man coverage corner capable of holding up against an offense’s top receiver. Then he tore his ACL in Week 1 of 2021 and it was back to square one for a player whose career has been consistently blighted by injuries. The Niners have stuck by him, though, albeit at the low-risk cost of another one-year deal. Crucially, the 49ers are no longer reliant on Verrett staying healthy due to the depth they have added at corner. However, if he were to stay healthy and show signs of returning to his 2020 form, the Niners would have another strong cover corner with the ability to play inside and out. Verrett could still catapult himself into the conversation to start for a 49ers team that has mitigated the risk but is still hoping to reap the rewards of its faith in a Pro Bowl talent.
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The Niners waited longer than perhaps some would have liked to address corner in the draft, but Womack is an interesting developmental option at nickel. With 37 pass breakups in his final three seasons, Womack’s on-ball production is a huge part of his appeal. The jump from playing in the MAC with Toledo to the pros is obviously massive, however, given the importance of slot defenders in today’s NFL, Womack will have a solid claim for a roster spot if he flashes the same knack for finding the ball in camp and preseason.
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Castro-Fields’ hopes of making the roster may appear to be slightly lower due to his status as a sixth-round pick, but the Penn State product has the skill set to prove he deserved to go higher. He is a fluid-hipped corner who uses his hands well and made a series of impressive plays in man coverage against Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson in the game with Ohio State last season. Castro-Fields tracks the ball well, and competes at the catch point, registering no fewer than six pass breakups in each of the three seasons in which he played all 12 games. Having also demonstrated impressive awareness in zone coverage in his time with the Nittany Lions, Castro-Fields is a strong fit for the San Francisco defense and the Niners will likely look to sneak him on the practice squad should he fail to make the 53.
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There is a good reason why the man jokingly referred to as ‘the barnacle’ continues to stick on the 49ers’ roster. It is because the Niners know they can rely on him for solid play in multiple positions. San Francisco was forced to call on Johnson at several junctures down the stretch and in the postseason in 2021 and he proved up to the task. Johnson is not a player to lean on consistently as part of a starting defense. However, he is a valuable backup with the versatility to play outside and inside corner and safety, and it would be no surprise to see him earn a place on the 53-man roster in 2022.
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Former first-round pick Dennard was a late-season add by the Niners and credited the franchise with helping him fall in love with football again. Dennard only featured in two games for the Niners across the regular season and postseason but played 21 key snaps on defense in the Week 18 win over the Los Angeles Rams. The first-team nickel throughout spring practices, Dennard now has the chance to not only prove he is worthy of a roster spot, but also deserving of significant snaps with a greater sample size of strong play in training camp.
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An undrafted rookie out of UCLA, Knight was the third-team nickel during minicamp, per Matt Barrows of The Athletic. Perhaps the importance of the slot corner spot helps him earn a practice squad place, but the number of players in front of him indicates it would take something remarkable for Knight to make the 53.
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The former sixth-round pick of the Packers has NFL experience on his side, but it is difficult to foresee an early offseason signing getting himself in the mix for a roster spot ahead of players in which the Niners have invested a lot more time and capital.