The key to an effective pass rush, beyond the obvious talent up front, is a strong secondary. For the past three seasons the San Francisco 49ers have had the best defense in the NFL, with three deep playoff runs and a Super Bowl appearance to show for it. The 49ers organization has done a tremendous job drafting and developing players, keeping an elite defense even against the threat of free agency. Last offseason San Francisco lost Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and didn’t miss a beat. Eric Reid, a first round draft pick from LSU, stepped in for Goldson and was a strong contributor from the start. This offseason began with the 49ers losing Donte Whitner, another elite Pro Bowl talent. The 49ers responded by signing former Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea to replace Whitner and team with Reid. At cornerback the 49ers decided to cut Carlos Rogers and avoid his $6.6 million salary. The team attempted to re-sign Tarell Brown, to provide depth and play the nickel quarterback, but Brown decided to leave the club and ink a contract with the Oakland Raiders.
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The loss of Whitner, Brown and Rogers is an impact to the 49ers depth and potential leadership, putting pressure on Tremaine Brock and Chris Culliver to take over the starting cornerback positions, along with Bethea at safety. Unfortunately for the Niners the plan to start Culliver at cornerback took a potential bad turn when the controversial corner was arrested for felony hit and run and weapons charges. The arrest of Culliver is another blight on a player who offended many in the Bay Area with anti-gay comments he made during Super Bowl week in 2012. Less than a year away from the Aldon Smith controversy, in which the 49ers star pass rusher was arrested for a second drunk driving offense and disorderly conduct, there is a heightened awareness regarding off the field issues for 49ers players. Could the 49ers decide to cut Culliver? If they do the once vaunted secondary is a major question mark and puts the pressure on the organization to improve via the draft.
Culliver is in the final year of his contract and the 49ers would save $1.4 million by cutting him loose. It may be popular from a public perception standpoint to cut Culliver loose but it sets up legitimate depth problems for the team. San Francisco did sign Chris Cook away from the Vikings during the free agency period. Cook is a skilled player who wore out his welcome in Minnesota, which included a felony assault trial. The 49ers ability to develop players could do wonders for Cook, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll turn into an elite player immediately. If Culliver is cut they could conceivably turn to Carlos Rogers, or a veteran like Champ Bailey, if he has anything left in the tank. Either way a position that was once an area of massive strength for the organization is in serious doubt, putting pressure on the remaining players to step up and perform and giving the team a small margin for error when the inevitable injuries occur.
Will Culliver’s issues and the loss of Brown, Rogers and Whitner set the 49ers back in their effort to win a Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh? Windows off opportunity are small in the NFL and like every team that compiles a large amount of talent the 49ers are suffering free agent defections. The combination of Reid and Whitner was a solid combo at safety last season, but will Bethea and Reid be as strong? Bethea is a talented cover safety but not the physical presence that Whitner was. With or without Culliver the 49ers overall depth at cornerback is not as strong as last season. Toss in a potential career threatening injury to Navorro Bowman and San Francisco could see their defense fall back a peg. Will that impact their ability to compete with Seattle? Time will tell. Chris Michaels