Shawntae Spencer started every game at right cornerback. Dashon Goldson started every game at free safety. The 49ers can look at those players and pencil them into the starting lineup in 2010 and beyond.
Strong safety Michael Lewis will enter his ninth NFL season. Cornerback Nate Clements begins his 10th season. Those are the spots where the 49ers must start thinking about getting younger players ready to take over for the future.
There will undoubtedly be some turnover this season in the 49ers’ secondary. It might not be reflected in the starting unit. But there should be some new faces playing major roles in the team’s substitute packages.
With the draft more than 10 weeks away, I’d consider it a possibility the 49ers could select a top cornerback, if one remains, in the middle of the first round. Or they could take a cornerback with return skills in the second or third round.
It’s unlikely the 49ers would select a safety in the first round. After all, Eric Berry is likely to be gone and there does not seem to be another safety the 49ers would consider worthy in the middle of the first round. But they could add somebody a little later to improve the depth and add to the competition.
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CB Shawntae Spencer: He was a surprise winner of a starting job at the end of the training camp, and he made the 49ers’ decision-makers look good with a consistent season. Spencer had the best year of his six-year NFL career, and that came after his 2008 season was cut short with a torn ACL. Spencer studied hard and focused on his technique. He’ll be back as a starter. Signed through 2012.
CB Nate Clements: The reasoning behind coach Mike Singletary’s decision to demote him from a significant role on defense for the Nov. 1 game against the Colts remains murky. He returned punts in that game and sustained a broken shoulder blade that ended his season. There is a contract issue with Clements (he’s scheduled to earn $6 million in salary), but he is still easily one of the team’s top two cornerbacks. Because of that, he will be back with the 49ers in 2010. No question. Singletary said he considers Clements a cornerback. There has been no serious thought about moving him to safety. Signed through 2013.
S Michael Lewis: He continues to provide exactly what the 49ers signed him to do. Lewis is very effective in run support. He has been among the team’s leading tacklers every season he’s been with the club. But he sustained three concussions in a short period of time. His style of play means he absorbs as much punishment as he inflicts. His shortcomings are in coverage, though he did clinch the victory over the Bears with a final-play interception in the end zone. The 49ers might want to incorporate someone with better cover skills in third-and-long situations. Signed through 2012.
CB Dre’ Bly: He opened the season as the nickel back before moving into the starting lineup at left cornerback for the final six games of the seasons. He’ll be entering his 12th NFL season, and the 49ers will allow him to test the free-agent market. The odds are less than 50-50 that he returns for a second season with the club, but that might be determined by how his stock is perceived across the NFL. Scheduled to be unrestricted free agent.
S Mark Roman: He lost his starting job but he still saw a significant amount of playing time when the 49ers went with extra defensive backs. Roman had an interception and recovered three fumbles. The coaches have always liked him because he was “assignment sound.” But it’s time to let some of the younger players take over. He’ll be allowed to test the free-agent market. Scheduled to be unrestricted free agent.
CB Tarell Brown: He started four games in the middle of the season but was unable to hang onto the starting job the rest of the way. His first start came when he replaced a healthy Clements just days after signing a contract extension. Brown has some talent but his consistency was lacking. He should be in the competition to earn a lot of playing time as an extra defensive back. Signed through 2013.
S Reggie Smith: He has not shown much in his first two seasons. Of course, he hasn’t had the opportunity to show much, either. He was inactive for six games last season, five of which were the result of torn groin muscle. Smith could be the heir apparent to Lewis. He has cover skills, which is something the 49ers need. But he has to assert himself and prove during training camp that he can make a difference. In the likely even that Roman does not return, that should enable Smith to get a lot of much-needed repetitions in the offseason and training camp. Signed through 2011.
S Curtis Taylor: He played in seven games as a rookie before ending the year on injured reserve with a slightly torn hip flexor. He was a worthy seventh-round selection because of his size (6-2, 209) and athleticism and potential. The 49ers can definitely afford to continue to develop him, as long as he finds a niche as a contributor on special teams. Signed through 2012.
CB Marcus Hudson: He has played four seasons, and has seemingly been on the bubble each of those years.
CB Walt Harris: The respected 14-year veteran remained close to the team during the season. He continued to rehabilitate from ACL surgery. He definitely wants to play at least another season to end his career on his terms. As of now, the 49ers are not viewing him as a safety. He has been a cornerback his entire career, and it’s not as easy as it seems to transition to a new position so late in a career. His return to the 49ers remains up in the air. Scheduled to be unrestricted free agent.
CB Keith Smith: The 49ers signed Smith after Clements sustained his season-ending injury. He played in three games and was inactive for five others. He was released Dec. 28 to open a roster spot for the 49ers to claim defensive tackle Derek Walker off waivers from the Seahawks. The 49ers signed him to a contract last week. Smith was in coverage on the deep pass to Deon Butler that set up the winning Seahawks field goal late in the season. He turns 30 next month, so he doesn’t exactly fit the model of the 49ers trying to get younger. Signed through 2011.
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