Assessing the Verrett Injury and What it Means for the 49ers Defense
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The English singer Beverley Knight once sang, “Shoulda woulda coulda are the last words of a fool” but Sunday’s injury to Jason Verrett must have had some Niners fans uttering those words. “Shoulda stayed put at 43, woulda taken Asante Samuel Jr.(now starting in NFL), coulda had a much stronger looking secondary.”
But (continuing the musical theme), in the words of Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers, “What’s the point in always looking back? When all you see is more and more junk.”
So let’s press on, keep moving forward and look to the future.
Where do we go now?
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Well, the 49ers have moved swiftly to address the issue (it’s almost as if they could have predicted that Verrett may succumb to a long-term injury!).First through the door to bolster the cornerback room was Josh Norman, who had signed before the Verrett injury. His signing suggested that the team already had concerns about their depth (Emmanuel Moseley has been nursing an injury, too) and felt the need to add a veteran presence. Norman was a serious name in the NFL a few years ago, making the Pro Bowl in 2015 whilst playing for the Carolina Panthers before moving on to Washington. Father Time waits for no man, though, and the current incarnation of the player started just nine games for Buffalo last year before his release after the end of his one-year deal. Has he still got what it takes to start at the top level? It is hard to tell but at least he offers a wealth of experience for the likes of Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir to learn from.
It’s All About Dre
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Next through the door was Dre Kirkpatrick, most recently of the Arizona Cardinals. He signed for the team on September 14th, in the aftermath of the injury to Verrett. A first-round pick in the 2012 draft (number 17 overall), Kirkpatrick certainly has a pedigree and has the type of size (just under 6-foot-2) that typically interests San Francisco. He was reasonably successful with the Cards last season, starting in 11 games with 56 tackles, three interceptions and seven passes defended.Like Norman, he provides plenty of veteran experience and pedigree but also like Norman, has been around for a while and certainly doesn’t provide the same level of athleticism as Verrett (he ran a 4.51 40 in the combine and certainly isn’t getting any faster after 10 years in the league!).
There has been some speculation about the likes of C.J. Henderson in a trade, but with the 49ers lack of draft picks coming up, it is questionable whether they have the sort of firepower needed for such a move. There is the possibility of trying to include a player in any deal (defensive lineman, potentially?) but this still seems unlikely and quite a long shot. There is also the question of why Henderson is available; if something seems too good to be true it usually is. Why would a building team be looking to get rid of a talented cornerback on a very affordable rookie deal?
There are other options but again, the lack of draft picks to offer seems to make any such deals unlikely. There has also been some talk of Richard Sherman returning but given his recent legal issues, his lack of a preseason and the fact that the team was happy to let him go, is this really the way forward?
What About the Rookies?
Deommodore Lenoir, the 49ers’ fifth-round pick,is coming off a very successful preseason where he catapulted himself above third-round selection Ambry Thomas. According to PFF, Lenoir had 62 coverage snaps on Sunday, giving up just one catch for 3 yards. Good numbers on the surface, but expectations must be tempered given that those numbers came against the Lions, who hardly have the most fearsome passing attack in the league. Will he hold up as well against the likes of DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor? We may well find out this Sunday. As an aside, if Lenoir does prove himself this season, he needs to get a better number than 38 next year, that just looks ugly on a starter at cornerback! Ambry Thomas is still extremely raw - as you would expect given his lack of football in the last year - and it would seem extremely unwise and un-Shanahan like to throw him to the wolves now. The best place for Thomas right now is on special teams, where he can make contributions and get used to being around the team without the pressure of having to go one-on-one outside and potentially getting burned.
Can the Defense hold up?
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Last Sunday certainly didn’t bode well on the surface, but too much shouldn’t be read into the events late in the fourth quarter. The pressure is certainly on the 49ers’ front seven,and if they play up to their potential, it could really help the secondary. An elite pass rush led by the returning Nick Bosa and the rejuvenated Dee Ford could solve a lot of problems, forcing opponents to throw quickly and helping the cornerbacks avoid having to cover for too long. A combination of Norman, Kirkpatrick and Lenoir could work in this scenario as long as Emmanuel Moseley can return to fitness and hold down the other side. It may not be too exciting but as long as they can stay competitive and not give up too many big plays, the 49ers should have enough firepower to win games (as long as they don’t have to score 41 every week!).
In the Longer Term?
Longer term, the team desperately needs to invest some serious resources in the secondary, specifically at cornerback. Verrett is out of contract at the end of the season and it’s hard to see him coming back unless it is on a team-friendly deal (which, given his injuries, is a possibility). Moseley is also on a short-term deal (two years) and the two rookies may or may not work out. The 49ers have always built from the trenches; they believe in putting resources into the front seven,but sooner or later they will have to seriously address cornerback. Until then, we’ll have to cross our fingers and hope that Norman and Kirkpatrick can roll back the years and hold down the fort well enough to help steer the Niners back to the playoffs.
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