On April 26, football fans all around the country will be tuning in to see what collegiate players go where in the 2018 NFL Draft. It’s always a fun and suspenseful viewing experience, and I imagine a lot of money changes hands among those in Las Vegas and Atlantic City who place bets on the new rookies’ future destinations. And even those teams (like the Eagles and Patriots) who won’t be picking up the hottest college prospects have fans who relish the idea of booing Roger Goodell — either in person or from their living rooms.
Just as important, though, are the veterans who will be changing their places of residence between now and the start of the preseason: the free agents. These are experienced players who, for one reason or another, have worn out their welcome on one team and will bring their expertise and grit to a new squad. And because of their wisdom and their pedigrees, they can be the difference between a winning season and a mediocre one.
This series will be an examination of the 49ers’ most critical needs, and the men who might be able to meet those needs, given the right offers and the right timing. I’ll also be looking at the players with expiring contracts who have filled the positions of need, and why they (mostly) didn’t cut the mustard in Santa Clara. And I will operate on the assumption that the team does not spend a draft pick on any of them, just to keep things simple; I know General Manager John Lynch & Co. will be using their draft picks wisely and generously, but I don’t want to muddy the waters for the sake of the next few pieces I’ll be writing for Nothing But Niners.
There are seven positions in question, now that Jimmy G has inked a long-term contract with the team. This week, let’s examine free agent cornerbacks.
Why We Need This:
The 49ers cut young corner Rashard Robinson loose last season after some appallingly bad performances that included being outrun, called for penalties, and generally looking inept (rumors also were flying around about Robinson being unable to stay away from the weed, but that’s just hearsay with no confirmed reports). Dontae Johnson was just about as bad: in the Texans’ game alone, he gave up 10 catches, 144 yards, 2 touchdowns, and three penalties (two pass interference calls, one holding).
Johnson is an unrestricted-free agent (UFA) this year, and the team probably has no designs on extending his tenure. Fellow UFA Antone Exum is also likely headed for the exit: he can’t make adjustments in schemes that opponents will throw at Niners defenses, and his quickness level is nothing special. That leaves Akhello Witherspoon, who did great down the stretch last season, but certainly can’t do all the pass coverage himself. So who does the team bring in? Here are my top three choices — and I’ll save you the trouble by telling you now — none of them are named Malcolm Butler.
Third Choice: Kyle Fuller | Bears
Fuller has everything that his predecessors didn’t have: youth, speed, anticipation, and an eerie ability to recognize passing routes. Put that together with some excellent hands and ability to leap over most wide receivers’ arms, and you will have a lot more interceptions than broken-up passes. Plus, he’s been a team captain before to boot. John Lynch should keep a careful eye on what the Bears and Vic Fangio do with Fuller; if they can’t come to terms, Lynch needs to nab this guy and pay him what he wants.
Second Choice: Rashaan Melvin | Colts
Melvin is a big, versatile shutdown corner who has bounced around a lot, but who can make plays against both the pass and the run. In 10 games in 2017, Melvin had 36 tackles, 13 passes-defensed, and the first three interceptions of his career before before he injured his hand. Indy has a decent amount of cap space, but if Melvin wants to quit packing and unpacking, he might want to come out west (he’s never played for a team west of the Mississippi before) — the Niners will make him very welcome.
First Choice: Patrick Robinson | Eagles
Okay, he’s just hit 30 years old (making him potentially more available) and is a part of a Super Bowl champion team (making him potentially less available), but he has a higher PFF score than both Melvin and Fuller. (And he’s stomping all over Butler, too.) He’d be a great slot guy in the Saleh defensive schemes, and he has some good speed in straightaways. Robinson can play special teams, which is an asset that is not as valued in the NFL as much as it ought to be. Also during his career, there have been no known off-the-field issues — a refreshing change (coughReubenFostercough).
Bottom line? We need more pick-sixes and fewer tipped passes. Let’s get this done, Kyle. Get out the checkbook, John.