CORNERBACKS ON 49ERS ROSTER: Shawntae Spencer, Mike Rumph, Derrick Johnson, Bruce Thornton, Mike Adams (also can play safety), Sammy Davis, Walt Harris, B.J. Tucker, Kris Richard
49ERS FIVE-YEAR REPORT: Total CBs drafted – 6. Still on roster – 3: Spencer, Rumph, Johnson. First-round picks – 1 (Rumph). Highest pick – Rumph, No. 27 overall selection in first round of 2002 draft
2006 POSITIONAL DRAFT NEED: The 49ers feel they are set at right cornerback with Spencer, but it’s a free-for-all on the left side to replace deposed former first-rounder Ahmed Plummer – and the Niners wouldn’t mind adding a hot new talent to the mix via the draft. Whether they’ll be able to do that or not, considering their other needs, remains to be seen. There are several top prospects who could be available at San Francisco’s No. 22 pick in the first round if that’s the direction the 49ers feel they need to go. As it is, there will be keen competition at the position already after the Niners brought in veterans Harris and Davis – who both own considerable NFL starting experience – via free agency and a trade for WR Rashaun Woods, respectively. Those two already are set to challenge for the starting role on the left side with any potential draft pick, as is 2005 sixth-rounder Derrick Johnson, who started five games last season and appears to be an up-and-comer in his own right. Then there is Rumph, who was on the rise as a starting corner in 2003 before injuries derailed his career, and Thornton, who had his moments while starting 11 games in place of Plummer after being picked up off the free-agent scrap heap in September. The 49ers, however, wouldn’t hesitate to move any of those veterans aside if they can get a better talent through the draft, and that aforementioned group – along with Adams, who was needed at free safety last year after Rumph crapped out in his trial there – could be fighting amongst themselves for the nickel and dime roles in the team’s secondary coverage packages. If nothing else, there will be intense competition for playing time – not to mention roster positions – here, whether or not the team adds another draft pick to the equation.
POSITION OVERVIEW: Cornerback will be popping off the draft board early and often, as the Class of 2006 offers depth and speed at the CB position. The first to go will likely be Tye Hill (Michael Huff is being rated as a safety, although he may end up playing corner in the NFL because of his excellent speed) somewhere in the middle of the first round. While it will take a while for the first corner to go off the board, by the time the first round is over, as many as five or six may be gone and another handful likely will go in the second round – making this a position to watch on draft day.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Tye Hill, Clemson, 5-9¼, 185: Fifth-year senior who was a state champion sprinter in high school and ran track for the Tigers until his senior season – winning ACC track titles in the 60-meter dash indoors and the 100- and 400-meter relay teams…Played his freshman season as a reserve running back before moving to cornerback…Three-year starter who had 143 tackles, 35 passes defensed, five interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery…Has incredible 4.30 speed…Has long arms to bat away balls…Is a willing hitter who is strong in run support and is a strong open-field tackler…Plays zone coverage very well…Good closing speed to the ball…Excellent leaper…Had a very strong week at the Senior Bowl…Is undersized…Doesn’t have ideal hands and drops too many potential interceptions…Has some difficulty in pass/run recognition…Not a team leader in the locker room or on the practice field…Ran a blistering 4.30 40 at the Combine with a 41-inch vertical jump a 10-9 broad jump, a Wonderlic score of 16 and opted not to lift.
Projection: He has been compared to Antoine Winfield – both in height and willingness to help in run support. But his speed sets him apart and, on draft day, teams put a lot of stock in the guys with the best top-end speed. He could go any time after the top 10 picks are off the board and will likely be gone by the middle of the first round.
Johnathan Joseph, South Carolina, 5-11, 189: Fourth-year junior who spent his first two seasons at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College…His first season at South Carolina ended after just two games when he broke his right foot…Started 10 of 12 games in 2005, finishing with 55 tackles, nine pass breakups and four interceptions…Is very raw, having played just one full season at Divison I…Has excellent size/speed combination…Changes directions without losing a step…Has explosive closing speed and burst…Good tackler…Can handle man coverage but didn’t get used in that role very often…Can return punts and kicks…Needs a lot of work to pick up slant routes...Doesn’t work hard in practice and tends to rely too much on pure speed…Turned off some scouts by missing team interviews by oversleeping at the Combine…Has had several minor injuries in addition to the broken foot, so durability will be a question mark…Bites on play action and pump fakes too often…Ran a 4.31 40 at the Combine with 15 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump, a 10-3 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 17.
Projection: He is going to be a risk because his lack of tangible big-time college experience. But his speed and athleticism are helping elevate his stock. Prior to the Combine, he was viewed as an early second-rounder. Now he looks to be gone by the middle of the first round.
Jimmy Williams, Virginia Tech, 6-2¼, 216: Fourth-year senior who came to VTU as a high school quarterback…Three-year starter…Spent his sophomore season as a free safety, registering 114 tackles, five passes defensed, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries…In two years as a starting CB, he had 104 tackles, 19 passes broken up and six interceptions…Scouts like his versatility and ability to come in play either cornerback or safety…Very good height, speed combination and has long arms to slap away passes…At his best in man coverage…Has good enough strength to consistently get jams on receivers…Strong in the red zone…Good on the corner blitz…Had a poor showing at the Combine, which dropped him from being the first pure corner taken to maybe the third, fourth or even fifth…Turned off a lot of people at the Combine with his cocky attitude…Misses a lot of tackles trying to make the big hit instead of getting into tackling position…Will get caught looking into the backfield and lose contact with his man…Ran a 4.41 40 at the Combine with 12 reps, a 33-inch vertical jump, a 9-8 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 24.
Projection: He seemed destined to go in the top 10-15 after the 2005 season ended, but so many scouts are sour on him, he might drop to the bottom of the first round or even out of it because of his volatility on and off the field. He has the potential to be a Pro Bowler, which will likely be enough for a team to take a chance in the final third of the first round.
Antonio Cromartie, Florida State, 6-2¼, 203: Third-year junior who was a high school All-American and named by USA Today as its Defensive Player of the Year in 2002…Only started one game in his college career and missed all of the 2005 season with a torn ACL in the summer of 2005…In his two seasons as reserve, he had 41 tackles, eight passes defensed and five interceptions…An extraordinary athlete who showed scouts at the FSU Pro Day that his knee is completely healed, running a blazing 4.37 40…Has been called the best pure speed corner to come out Florida State since Deion Sanders…Has ideal height and is a rarity to have the combination of size, strength and speed that he possesses…Has good upper body strength and jams receivers well at the line…Has very good leaping ability…Is willing in run support…Has the immediate quickness to be a return man…Is very raw and will need time to become a decent pro corner…Some think he may actually be too big to be a top-end cornerback and may eventually have to switch to safety – a position he’s never played…Needs work on his technique and can’t rely simply on his speed to make up for mistakes…Has a hard time locating the ball when he gets turned around…Durability is a big concern…Ran a 4.37 40 at the Combine with 18 reps, a 42-inch vertical jump, a 11-0 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 12.
Projection: Whatever team takes Cromartie has the chance to have a Pro Bowl player for years to come or an expensive bust. He performed extremely well in workouts, but his knee still isn’t 100 percent for playing in the NFL. He would have been better suited to stay in college another year, where he likely would have been a top-10 pick next year. As it stands, unless someone is willing to gamble on greatness, he may drop to the end of (or out of) the first round.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Kelly Jennings, Miami, 5-11, 178: Fourth-year senior and four-year starter…Finished his career with 115 tackles, 30 passes defensed, six interceptions and four forced fumbles…Missed eight starts with a torn thumb ligaments in 2003 and played with a cast most of 2002 after another torn thumb ligament injury…Has top-end speed…Is very good in coverage and doesn’t lose speed when has to turn and run on a deep route with a receiver…Excels in man coverage…Has good leaping ability and long arms…Showed a lot of improvement as a receiver…A good tackler in the open field…Had a great workout at the Combine…Is very thin and doesn’t look to go face up with receivers…Has trouble in run support because he shies away from blockers…Needs to try to add strength and bulk without losing speed…Drops some relatively easy interceptions…Ran a 4.39 40 at the Combine with 12 reps of 225 pounds, a 40-inch vertical jump, a 10-0 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 21.
Projection: Jennings helped his stock at the Senior Bowl and the Combine, but in an era where corners have to be physical and hit receivers in the first five yards, he may struggle until he adds some more strength. He has a lot of good qualities, however, and should go off the board in the early or middle part of round two.
Ashton Youboty, Ohio State, 5-11¾, 189: Third-year junior who was born in Liberia and moved to the U.S. at age 4…A two-year starter who spent his freshman season playing behind first-round draft pick Chris Gamble…In his two years as a starter, he had 117 tackles, 23 passes broken up and five interceptions…Is very physical and is quick to help out in run support…Has good height and has a body type that can add 10 pounds of muscle without losing speed…Changes directions very quickly without slowing up…Hard worker…Has good leaping ability and timing…Gets down on himself too much and will mope if he gets beat…Will have a difficult time being strong in run support at the next level…Doesn’t have instinctive corner skills that can get a read on the QB before he throws – tends to react too late at times…Takes a lot of chances and will get burned on double moves and pump fakes…Ran a 4.43 40 at the Combine with just 11 reps, a 36-inch vertical jump, a 10-0 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 21.
Projection: Would have probably been better served had he stayed at OSU for one more season, because he would have gone in the top half of the first round. But, there is something about Ohio State corners – which include Shawn Springs, Chris Gamble, Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield. They all seem NFL-ready when they come out and many have had extremely successful NFL careers. Youboty could be the latest chapter to that list, but he likely won’t go off the board until the second round.
Richard Marshall, Fresno State, 5-11¼, 189: Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 139 tackles, 16 passes defensed, six interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in that span…Prototype size and speed combination…Can turn and run with receivers well in man coverage…Is very quick into and out of his breaks…Has good hands and always seems to make big plays…Will challenge runners with force in run support…Is inconsistent and will make mistakes…Bites on double moves and play fakes…Always looking for the kill shot and will get burned at times…Allows too many passes to get caught in front of him on stop routes…an a 4.42 40 at the Combine with 13 reps of 225 pounds, a 38½ inch vertical jump, a 10-9 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 22.
Projection: Marshall has a lot of natural ability, but will need to be developed slowly by a coaching staff with patience. His upside is very good and he will likely be a second-round pick.
Cedric Griffin, Texas, 6-0½, 202: Fourth-year senior who became a starter midway through his freshman year – starting three games at strong safety and three at nickel cornerback…Became a full-time starter as a sophomore and didn’t miss a game in three years, recording 202 tackles, 28 passes defenses, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…Is very physical and has prototype size…Had more tackles in each year he played…Has good recovery speed and fluid hips to make good change of direction…Has excellent upper body strength to jam receivers…Plays well in both zone and man coverage…Improved his stock at the Senior Bowl…Played primarily zone coverage at Texas, so he is both inexperienced and untested in man coverage…Doesn’t have top end speed…Will have trouble at times locating the ball…May eventually have to be moved to safety – a position he hasn’t played since his freshman year…Ran a 4.51 40 at the Combine with 17 reps, a 35½ inch vertical jump, a 10-5 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 19.
Projection: Griffin is big hitter who gets physical, but may not have the speed and instincts to be a starting corner in the NFL. At some point, he will likely be moved to safety, which could be enough to drop him to the end of the second round or more likely into the third.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Alan Zemaitis, Penn State, 6-1¼, 196: Fifth-year senior who is lucky to be alive – in January, 2003, he fell asleep while driving and his car went off the road and he was thrown through the windshield, leaving a pair of gashes in his head, a concussion and a broken sinus bone…Still has to wear a special helmet to protect his skull…In three years as a starter, he had 169 tackles, 34 passes defensed, 12 interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…Had his best season in 2005 with six picks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 10 pass breakups…Plays under control and rarely is out of position…Has good size and long arms…Hard worker…Gets good breaks on crossing routes and rarely gives up big plays on slant patterns…Doesn’t have top-end speed and will struggle on deep routes with speedy wide receivers…Was used almost exclusively in zone coverage and has limited man-to-man experience…May have to eventually move to safety…Potential for head injuries could concern some teams…Ran a 4.56 40 at the Combine with 10 reps of 225 pounds, a 30-inch vertical jump, a 9-9 broad jump and a woeful Wonderlic score of 9.
Projection: Zemaitis seemed like a lock for the second round before the Combine, but his poor performance, combined with the likelihood that he will have to move to safety at some point, will likely drop him to the end of the round or perhaps into the third.
David Pittman, Northwestern State, (La.), 5-11¼, 181: Fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2001 after having surgery on his left MCL…A four-year starter who finished his career with 153 tackles, 32 passes defensed and 11 interceptions…Missed time in 2004 with a dislocated elbow…Has good combination of height, speed and strength…Is strong in run support…Has good burst out of backpedal and makes smooth transition in mirroring receivers on deep routes…Has good hands and makes picks when the opportunities arise…Has long arms and is good defending in the Red Zone…Has special teams experience…Is skinny and will have to bulk up to succeed…Has trouble jamming big receivers…Gets suckered in on pump fakes and double moves and gets caught looking into the backfield too often…Hasn’t faced top competition…Ran a 4.44 40 at the Combine with 16 reps, a 36-inch vertical jump, a 10-8 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 24.
Projection: He has the numbers comparable to a second-round value, but because of his lack of tough competition, he’s viewed as a project and will likely still be on the board well into the third round.
Will Blackmon, Boston College, 6-0½, 198: Fourth-year senior who came to B.C. as a high school All-American and Rhode Island Player of the Year as a senior…Only a full-time starter in the secondary for one season (2004) when he had 46 tackles and three interceptions…Moved to wide receiver as a senior and caught 51 passes for 763 yards and four TDs…Has good size and quickness…Returned punts and kicks…Versatile and an every-man Slash type player…Has good makeup speed…Makes big plays and has good hands…Is strong in run support and is willing to lay on the big hit…Is a man without a true position, having not played CB since his junior year and having his best season as a sophomore when he had 64 tackles, 10 passes defensed and four interceptions despite not being a starter…Doesn’t have top-end speed for a NFL corner, although he times well…Will need a lot of work…Ran a 4.47 40 at the Combine with a 41-inch vertical jump and a 10-9 broad jump – he opted not to lift.
Projection: Blackmon brings a lot of versatility to a roster as a reserve cornerback, an emergency wide receiver and a solid kick and punt returner. He’s a jack of all trades, but a master of none, which could drop him into the late portion of Day One or, at the worst, early on Day Two.
Devin Hester, Miami, 5-10¾, 190: A third-year junior who never became a full-time starter…As a true freshman, he played wide receiver and caught four passes for 116 yards…Made four starts in 2004 (once at running back and three at cornerback) and finished the year with 20 tackles and four interceptions…Moved back to receiver in 2005 and caught five passes for 55 yards…His selling point was as a return specialist, where he brought back 40 kickoffs for 1,019 yards (a 25.5 average) and two touchdowns and returned 41 punts for 638 yards (a 15.5 average) and four touchdowns…A tremendous athlete who projects as a cornerback in the pros, but his primary selling point is as a return specialist…Has dynamic burst and can start and stop on a dime…Has a second gear that makes him look faster than everyone else on the field…Can change a game every time he touches the ball…Has had injury problems…Doesn’t have experience at anything but returning kicks, which is a big drawback…Isn’t physical as a cornerback and doesn’t have natural hands as a receiver…Turned heads at the Combine with a 4.32 40, 16 reps of 225 pounds, a 38-inch vertical jump, a 10-4 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 18.
Projection: He has little experience at any position on the field, but his speed and explosion make him a dangerous return specialist. Teams that have depth and need a jolt in the return game may give him a long look on the first day. He could be a nice addition to the Vikings special teams, which has been a revolving door of return men. But, the Vikes likely won’t bite until Day Two. It’s probable somebody will be willing to take a shot on him late in Day One or before the Vikes get on the clock in Day Two.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Dion Byrum, Ohio, 5-11, 190
Charles Gordon, Kansas, 5-10¼, 182
Marcus Hudson, North Carolina State, 6-1, 197
Tim Jennings, Georgia, 5-8¼, 184
Derrick Martin, Wyoming, 5-10, 198
Marcus Maxey, Miami, 6-1½, 198
Gerrick McPhearson, Maryland, 5-10¼, 196
Demario Minter, Georgia, 5-11¼, 185
Anwar Phillips, Penn State, 5-11½, 190
Demetrice Webb, Florida, 5-10½, 183
John Holler of VikingUpdate.com contributed to this report