49ers Training Camp Preview: Are the Red & Gold thin at cornerback?
Jul 24, 2023, 5:00 AM | Updated: 10:08 am
(Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
The San Francisco 49ers enter the 2023 training camp with a few questions across the board. While most of the roster is a ready-made Super Bowl contender, some areas could spell disaster for the franchise, especially depth.
The 49ers have accumulated top-end talent to feature on both offense & defense, but what happens if those marquee players get hurt? We all watched it happen last season at the quarterback position, with the team playing four different signal-callers leading into the NFC Championship game. The same can be said for other key positions, including the secondary.
San Francisco went into free agency and made a big splash at the cornerback position in 2022, signing Charvarius Ward to a three-year, $39 million deal. He has only backed up the money from there.
Nicknamed “Mooney”, the Middle Tennessee state alum recorded 87 combined tackles, 11 pass defenses and one interception in his first season in The Bay. What’s most impressive is his tackling ability, a stout defender in rum support. That, along with his cover-man abilities, made him the de-facto No. 1 CB in San Francisco.
Lowest missed tackle percentage of any NFL cornerback in 2022?
Charvarius Ward, 1.4%. Only 1 missed tackle on the season.
This is very important in the context of what the 49ers do defensively — their entrust their CB1 with major run-support duties
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) July 18, 2023
For his efforts in 2022, he has been awarded with an 87 overall rating in the upcoming video game, Madden NFL 24. After stellar play a season ago, Ward vows to improve upon it, hoping to make All-Pro honors in 2023.
Opposite of him is Deommodore Lenoir, a player who took on a bigger role after Emmanuel Moseley went down with a torn ACL in Week 5. But, the Oregon alum made the most of it, stringing together stronger performances by the end of the 2022 postseason.
Nicknamed “DMo”, Lenoir finished his second NFL season with 79 combined tackles, five pass defenses and one INT in 13 starts. While he did give up a 100-or-more passer rating seven times during the regular season, his play peaked in the playoffs, ending January with scores of 20.8, 39.3, 39.6.
If that play continues, the 49ers could be looking at a one-two combo in the secondary.
But who else is on the roster to back them up, especially with long-time secondary member Jimmie Ward now in Houston? Here is the current depth chart of CBs waiting in the wings for their number to be called by the Red & Gold.
The 49ers made a few splashes this offseason, but one of the most underrated moves was signing CB Isaiah Oliver.
Oliver, 26, is a versatile veteran at the position, playing the last five years with the Atlanta Falcons. While his performance has been inconsistent, at his peak, he’s a long, rangy corner that should thrive in Steve Wilks’ system.
The Colorado alum bounced back from a torn ACL in 2021 to have a solid 2022 season. Oliver played 12 games, recording 37 combined tackles, seven pass defenses and one interception last year. Additionally, that one pick came against the 49ers. He also finished with a 77.9 Pro Football Focus rating for his 2022 play.
Signing a two-year deal with San Francisco, Wilks & the coaching staff see him as the team’s starting slot corner when training camp opens. That should remain the case through August, given his physical traits and open-field tackling skills.
Things can change however, especially if one of the team’s secondary prospects takes a leap forward ahead of the 2023 season.
One of the players that could see a jump in snaps in Ambry Thomas.
Entering his third NFL season, Thomas has had a rocky start to his NFL career. He played in 12 games in his rookie season, playing 100% of the snaps as the team’s depth dwindle to injuries. Despite coming up with his first INT in Week 17, that wasn’t enough to cement his standing. He struggled in the postseason that year, leading to a 2022 season that saw him feature mostly on special teams.
In two seasons combined, Thomas has 36 total tackles, five pass defenses and one INT. Truth be told, the 49ers felt they had better options at the position last season, especially after Mooney Ward entered the building.
That could change though. Now that rookie Darrell Luter is on the PUP list to start training camp, Thomas should be in line for an extended look from Steve Wilks. If he can impress over the next few weeks, it’s possible he makes a return to the rotation.
If he doesn’t though, this could be the end of his time in The Bay. It’s now-or-never for the Michigan alum.
Samuel Womack III:
A rookie last season, Samuel Womack had an up-&-down first year in the league.
He impressed throughly in training camp and the preseason, including the first exhibition game against the Green Bay Packers where he had two INTs. Unfortunately, his play dipped off once the regular season started. He played 45% and 61% of the snaps the first two weeks. The last two weeks: 0% and 15%.
Regardless, he had some solid moments for being a fifth-round draft pick, including his first regular season pick, Week 10 in Mexico City. He finished the year with 19 combined tackles, two pass defenses and a forced fumble.
Year 2 is critical for Womack, especially with Oliver now in his way for a starting spot. If he can take a leap like Lenoir, great. Otherwise, he could end up in a similar spot as Ambry Thomas.
Darrell Luter Jr. (R):
The rookie corner previously.
South Alabama’s Darrell Luter Jr. is a long, rangy cover man that uses his physicality on the field. Those are all traits Steve Wilks covets in the secondary.
Luter, 23, comes from three years of productive play at the collegiate level. He finished with 91 combined tackles, 18 pass defenses and five INTs in three seasons.
Sadly, his first NFL training camp will start without him, put on the PUP list recently for a non-football related injury. There is no further details at this time regarding his status.
Because of that, other opportunities are available for from fringe players. And based on their performances, who knows what the depth chart will look like by midseason.
Hopefully, Luter can return to the field sooner rather than later.
Another fringe player that will need to impress in training camp.
Knight, 25, spent most of his rookie year hurt, unable to see any game time in 2022. A six-year college player, he finished with more than 200 total tackles and seven pass defenses. Playing for Maryland, Kent State and UCLA, “Q Knight” has the experience that Shanahan & Co. like in prospects.
But that won’t be enough to get him time on the field.
Coming back from an upper body injury in the spring, Knight will need to be on his A-game if he wants a roster spot for the 2023 season.
The former Detroit Lion was signed to a reserve/future contract by the 49ers early in the offseason.
Parker, 25, is entering his third season in the NFL, playing 16 games in his career. He also has starting experience, making seven starts in his rookie season. The Kansas State alum has 61 combined tackles, seven pass defenses and one INT.
While his experience gives him an edge, Parker should be seen as no more than a training camp player hoping to be on the Red & Gold’s practice squad.
Similar to Q Knight, Tre Swilling hasn’t played a down of football entering his second season in the NFL.
Swilling, 24, is an undrafted player from Georgia Tech, brought on the 49ers for depth purposes last season. Spending the whole year on the practice squad, he has not suited up for a game yet.
While that could change in 2023, not sure we can expect that to happen with the 49ers.