49ers open OTAs seeking new cornerback combination, nickel back

For the 49ers, last season ended when nickel back du jour, Logan Ryan, was too late in covering Kansas City slot receiver Mecole Hardman on a championship-clinching touchdown.

Since that moment, in the Super Bowl’s final seconds of overtime, the 49ers have sought replacements for that defensive hole.

That will be the best competition to watch when organized team activities begin Monday. The 49ers’ season-opener is Sept. 9 at home against the New York Jets and Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers will be sure to test a potential rookie nickel back in Renardo Green, whose physicality is thought of so highly, he was the 49ers’ highest-drafted cornerback in 20 years. He followed the free agency hirings of Isaac Yiadom, Chase Lucas, and Rock Ya-Sin.

It’s not just the newcomers – or holdovers such as Deommodore Lenoir and Sam Womack – that make the job of a No. 3 cornerback so intriguing.

The draft saw teams stock up on wide receivers, with seven going in the first round, including Ricky Pearsall, a slot receiver the 49ers selected at No. 31 overall.

That run on first-round receivers began with Marvin Harrison Jr. going No. 4 overall to the Arizona Cardinals, who desperately needed to catch up in the NFC West, where it’s not so much an arms race but rather offenses keyed by good hands, quick feet, and run-after-catch playmakers in the open field.

The Seattle Seahawks have a triple threat in DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. The Los Angeles Rams, the biggest challenger to the 49ers’ two-year reign atop the NFC West, have a daunting combination of receivers with Cooper Kupp and Puka Nakua.

But it starts Week 1, where the Jets will unveil Mike Williams and Malachi Corley as complements to Garrett Wilson for Rodgers’ target practice. Then the 49ers must visit Minnesota and arguably the NFL’s best receiver, Justin Jefferson.

The second half of the schedule is flooded with top-notch receivers and hot-shot rookies: the Chiefs’ Marquise Brown, Xavier Worthy, and Rashee Rice; the Cowboys’ CeeDee Lambe and Brandin Cooks; the Bucs’ Mike Evans and Chris Godwin; the Packers’ Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Jayden Reed;

The Bills’ Keon Coleman, Curtis Samuel and Marquez Valdes-Scantling; the Bears’ Rome Odunze, D.J. Moore and Keenan Allen; the Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, and Odell Beckham Jr.; and, the Lions’ Jameson Willison and Amon-Ra St. Brown.

The 49ers’ chiefs competitors in the NFC both used first-round picks on cornerbacks: the Eagles with Quinyon Mitchell (No. 22 overall) and the Lions with Terrion Arnold (No. 24). Three picks after the Lions spent a second-round pick on another cornerback (Ennis Rakestraw), the 49ers got into the act and selected Green, a 6-foot hitter out of Florida State.

“He played in college all on the outside, and we like him for that,” coach Kyle Shanahan said last month. “But we also think he’s wired the way you can be at nickel from a mentality in the run game, also the quickness in coverage. … So we’ll just play it out on the practice field.”

Added general manager John Lynch: “He’s got a heck of a mentality, Renardo. I mean, that’s the thing we really loved about him. He’s 186 pounds, but he wants to hit you.”

Lynch went out in free agency to add more competition at cornerback, with Lucas a prime candidate at nickel back upon defecting from Detroit. He played 18 games (no starts) with the Lions as a 2022 seventh-round pick.

Yiadom’s 87-game, six-year career provides veteran experience and know-how. Last year was his best, with 14 passes defensed and an interception for the New Orleans Saints.

The 49ers are Ya-Sin’s fourth team in four years. His only interceptions came with one in each of his first two seasons with the Colts, in 2019 and ’20.

The 49ers preach “flexibility” for their defenders, and perhaps no cornerback defines that more than Lenoir, a fourth-year pro coming off his best season (three interceptions, 10 forced fumbles).

Once Isaiah Oliver flamed out at nickel back last season, the 49ers’ solution was to slide Lenoir inside from his starting spot at right cornerback. But that put Ambry Thomas on the field as the No. 3 cornerback with Lenoir and Charvarius Ward. A hand injury hindered Thomas’ season, and he became such a liability in the playoffs that he saw just one defensive snap in the Super Bowl.

Defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen recently informed reporters that the 49ers have two other in-house options that have shown promise in the offseason program: Sam Womack and Kemon Hall. Not to be forgotten is Darrell Luter Jr., whose rookie year was delayed by a knee injury. He came on strong until a punt glanced off his foot and helped key the Super Bowl downfall.



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