Image Credit: Bay Area News Group
If you were to only listen to the national media talk about the San Francisco 49ers’ cornerbacks, it could be forgiven if you thought that they belonged near the bottom of the league. The last six minutes of Super Bowl LIV have left a stain on the group that they have not been able to shake. Emmanuel Moseley, in particular, has taken a beating for his involvement in the infamous third-and-15 play. With zero starting cornerbacks under contract after this season, what can defensive coordinator Robert Saleh expect from his CBs in 2020?
Richard Sherman is entering his tenth NFL season, his third with San Francisco, and is still playing at a high level. In 15 regular season starts last year, he accumulated three interceptions, eleven pass deflections and a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Week 1. Sherman added a pair of picks against Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers, the latter of which sealed an NFC Championship for the 49ers. At 32 years old, his accomplishments landed him at No. 94 on Pro Football Network’s Top 100 Players of 2020. Saleh knows that Sherman may have lost a step over the years but also knows that he is still one of the smartest corners in the league. Expect the 49ers to use his guile even more in 2020 to deceive opposing quarterbacks.
The second-best cornerback on the roster after Sherman is the starter in the slot with a nose for the football. K’Waun Williams is one of the most underrated players on the defensive side of the ball. That is not a huge surprise given the players that surround him. Williams, who was one of the first players general manager John Lynch brought in, had a pair of interceptions and forced four fumbles. He always seemed to be around the ball and was a lockdown defender in the slot. Facing a career year, it is fair to expect the best football that anyone has seen from K’Waun Williams before.
The starting spot opposite Richard Sherman is the most intriguing question mark for the 49ers. Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley have both played very well in stretches, but never consistently enough to lock down the spot. Witherspoon has all the physical traits Saleh looks for in a cornerback: long, rangy and fluid hips. His issues happen when things start to go wrong, they snowball to a point where he is unable to recover. Witherspoon is entering the final year of his rookie contract and if he wants to continue to wear the red and gold, he will have to clean up the consistency issues.
Moseley, on the other hand, is a little rawer and less of a physical specimen but made the most of his playing time last season. He added an interception in the NFCCG to go along with one during the regular season. With a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Moseley took advantage of the incredible pass rush to read the panicked quarterbacks’ eyes. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of the year and barring an implosion will almost certainly be back for the 2021 season.
The rest of the cornerbacks are a group of unknowns. Tim Harris was redshirted for his rookie year and while he matches the physical profile, he will have to put his injury issues behind him. Speaking of injury issues, Jason Verrett has flashed the talent to be one of the best cornerbacks in the entire league, but his body has failed him year after year. Undrafted free agent DeMarkus Acy out of Mizzou is very intriguing; at 6’2” and 195 lbs. he is one of the biggest cornerbacks on the team, but his impact may be limited to special teams during his rookie season, if he cracks the roster.
And Dontae Johnson? Dontae Johnson is going to play for the 49ers until the sun explodes and consumes us all.
There is a reason that the 49ers did not address the cornerback position at all during free agency or the draft. They feel much more confident in the players they have than the national media does. Their actual ability probably lies somewhere between the two, but with the pass rush up front, they will do just fine this season. Good enough to replicate the league’s second-best pass defense? That is yet to be seen.
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