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Evaluating The Success Of A Season Part 3 - By Bryan Hersh

Editors Note – It seems like every article I write requires some sort of prelude, I hope that will change soon. This is just a heads up that parts of 49ers Paradise will be down due to maintenance for a 2 hour window, from 12:00 am to 1:00 am July 31 - August 1st. This maintenance is the result of a hardware upgrade on the server that this site is hosted on. Experience has shown me that sometimes upgrades such as this can take longer than the announced time. I apologize in advance for any inconvenience, and hope that you will all see the benefits of this improvement.

Part three of the “Evaluating The Success Of A Season” series of articles will examine how finding out that the team has two good starting cornerbacks and a better than average nickel back will contribute to making this a successful season for the 49ers. It may be to much to ask a team with a new defensive coordinator, and new defensive scheme, several new defensive starters, to be ranked as one of the top defenses in the league. Throw in a holdout by one of the leagues best linebackers, and a plethora of excuses appear as to why the 49ers defense will not be successful this season.

Truth be told though, despite all of these hurdles, the 49ers expect their defense to be better than it has been in a long time. Possible? Of course, but one thing has to happen first. The 49ers have to assemble a stable of cornerbacks that can truly compete with today’s pass happy NFL. I do not care what kind of defensive scheme a team runs, or how many star players it has on it, if the team does not have three good or better cornerbacks they can not compete. Some might argue that a good enough pass rush can negate the need for solid corners, but the truth is the two are mutually dependent, “you can’t have one, without the other”.

The 49ers have been trying for years now to solidify their defensive backfield. The safeties, year and year out, do not seem to be a problem. The team however continues to draft cornerbacks, and year after year the 49ers are still struggling in pass coverage – not only because they have lacked a true pass rush, but mainly because the cornerbacks simply have not played well enough.

With all the first day talent at cornerback and some real experience, the 49ers cornerbacks have to put up this year. They have to prove that this problem area of so many years has finally been addressed (not that the team should ever stop paying attention to it). Finding out that this team has addressed in cornerbacks woes is at least half of the answer to its pass coverage problems… and thus knowing that the team is at least halfway complete in addressing this problem area for the future would help make this season successful.

Ahmed Plummer, the most veteran cornerback on the team is a former first round draft pick. Entering his fourth season, Plummer needs to bounce back from a rocky third season. As a rookie, Plummer was thrown into the fire, and though he was beaten repeatedly he faired pretty well all things considered. In his second season Plummer did not look like he was the type of a cornerback that could shut down half the field, but he did look good enough to be a legitimate starting cornerback in the NFL. Last season, Plummer’s third was the most disappointing of his young career. Plummer was relied on as the veteran cornerback, but really was not consistently good enough to be dependable. If Plummer can bounce back to form, and be that consistently good cornerback the 49ers have been looking for, for so long, it will be a mark of success for this season.

Mike Rumph is entering his third season in the NFL. Rumph had a break through season last year after a very hard initiation to the NFL in his rookie year. A former first round draft pick, Rumph has to answers the question as to whether last year was a fluke, or on the flip side, if he can perform at a high level consistently year to year.

The 49ers third cornerback position is open for competition. Jimmy Williams drafted in 2001 in the 6th round has proven to be a versatile player in the NFL. Williams has won the punt and kick return positions on the team (though there may be greater competition this year), and excels as a ‘cover corner’. Recovering from injury suffered in 2002, Williams was a little slow to recover last season. Still the 49ers hope that Williams can be a dependable nickel back on this team.

Rookie Shawntae Spencer was drafted in the third round this off-season. A pure cover corner, Spencer it was not anticipated that Spencer would even be drafted this off-season, in fact he was not even invited to the scouting combine. A few key pro-day work outs though, and Spencer managed to climb all the way up into the third round and to the 49ers. In mini-camps this off-season Spencer drew praise from the coaching staff who expects him to give Jimmy Williams a real fight for the third cornerback position.

In today’s NFL, there is a great need for three good cornerbacks. Teams are loaded with fire power at receiver, and defenses can no longer get by with just a decent third cornerback. It is imperative that the 49ers finish off this season in such a way that the team is confident in all three of its starting cornerbacks, so much so that a successful season depends on it, in a great way.

Recent rules changes in the NFL may make it harder on cornerbacks. NFL rules have always prescribed that cornerbacks can engage in contact with the receiver within the first five yards from the line of scrimmage. Traditionally the five yards had an additional five yard cushion. This off-season, following a Super Bowl full of un-penalized illegal contact between cornerbacks and receivers, the NFL decided that it would emphasize the enforcement of the five yard rule. The NFL craves offensive fire power, and this greater enforcement should make it harder on the cornerbacks, thus easier on the receivers, and as a result the score boards should light up.

The emphasis on the rule enforcement will force cornerbacks to play within the rules, and that of course will make their jobs more difficult. With the 49ers already struggling to field three really good cornerbacks, the rule change makes it even more difficult. Thus, at the end of the season if the 49ers are really sure that their top three cornerbacks are good enough to get the job done, it will certainly be a step in the right direction, and a step towards a successful season.