Will 49ers break pattern, draft top cornerback?
The 49ers have a chance to do something radical in the upcoming draft:
They can draft a cornerback before Round 3 for the first time since 2004, when they took Shawntae Spencer with the 58th pick.
Or they can get really daring, and draft a cornerback with a top-20 pick in Round 1 for the first time since 1981, when they took Ronnie Lott, who played cornerback for the first five seasons of his career and turned out to be pretty good.
This year, the 49ers own the 13th pick. And considering how their defense gave up deep pass after deep pass to the Chiefs in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowl loss, it’s clear the 49ers need a cornerback and should consider drafting one in Round 1.
But the 49ers strangely haven’t taken the cornerback position seriously since the days of Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
In 1981, Walsh drafted Lott with the eighth pick and cornerback Eric Wright with the 40th pick. Those two each won four Super Bowls with the 49ers and were two of the best draft picks in franchise history. And yet, since 1981, the 49ers have drafted only three cornerbacks before the 40th pick: R.W. McQuarters, Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph. Bust, bust, bust.
After Seifert became the head coach in 1989, the 49ers took cornerback Eric Davis with the 53rd pick in 1990, and he went on to become an All-Pro. In 1994, the 49ers paired Davis with arguably the greatest cornerback of all time, Deion Sanders, and the 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl. Then Sanders left in 1995, Davis left in 1996 and Seifert got fired in 1997, and the 49ers haven’t had a premium cornerback in his prime ever since.
They’ve mostly pulled cornerbacks off the scrap heap the past 23 years. Either they’ve signed discount veterans coming off major injuries (Richard Sherman) or disappointing stints elsewhere (Carlos Rogers), or drafted starting corners in Round 3 (Ahkello Witherspoon, Chris Culliver).
The 49ers can justify their cornerback devaluation because they believe a good pass rush and a solid zone-coverage scheme can hide mediocre corners. And the 49ers are right, to an extent. Teams can make it quite far with an excellent pass rush and an excellent defensive coordinator — they can make it all the way to the Super Bowl, as the 49ers proved in 2012 and 2019. Both seasons, the 49ers had ferocious pass rushers and brilliant defensive coaches (Vic Fangio, Robert Saleh).
And both seasons, the 49ers lost the Super Bowl largely because their cornerbacks played poorly during the final game. Got exposed. However you want to put it. In 2012, the Ravens embarrassed Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver. And two months ago, the Chiefs embarrassed Richard Sherman and Emmanuel Moseley.
Every defense eventually comes across a phenomenal quarterback, such as Patrick Mahomes, who can avoid a pass rush and make plays under heavy pressure. Against these quarterbacks, a defense needs a premium cornerback who can cover elite wide receivers man to man. The 49ers haven’t had a cornerback who fits that description in 25 years.
The 49ers need a premium cornerback more than ever, because they traded their best defensive player, DeForest Buckner. Traded him to the Colts for the 13th pick. Without Buckner, the 49ers’ pass rush will regress, and so the cornerbacks will have to work harder than last season.
Fortunately for the 49ers, they have a chance to draft a premium cornerback. With the 13th pick, the 49ers can take Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson, who has the size, speed and athletic ability to run stride-for-stride with the best wide receivers in the NFL. The 49ers probably could trade down two or three spots, pick up a late-third-round draft pick and still get Henderson.
Either way, Henderson is the kind of cornerback the 49ers haven’t had since Eric Wright, Eric Davis and Deion Sanders. The kind of cornerback who can do everything, and isn’t limited to zone coverage, like Sherman. The kind of cornerback who could make the 49ers’ defense historically good.
Henderson earned a first-team All-SEC selection in 2019. He’s 6-foot-1, 204 pounds and he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. He’s a stud. NFL.com projects him to be a quality starter immediately.
Sherman and Witherspoon both will be unrestricted free agents after next season, and both could sign with new teams in 2021. It’s time for the 49ers to draft and develop a new cornerback.
It’s time they do what Walsh and Seifert did.