DEFENSIVE BACKS (15) New: S Lewis Baker (Rookie), S D.J. Parker (Rookie), CB Allen Rossum (11th Year), CB Reggie Smith (Rookie)
Returners: CB Tarell Brown (2nd Year), CB Nate Clements (8th Year), CB Markus Curry (1st Year), S Dashon Goldson (2nd Year), CB Walt Harris (13th Year), CB Marcus Hudson (3rd Year), S Keith Lewis (5th Year), S Michael Lewis (7th Year), S Mark Roman (9th Year), CB Shawntae Spencer (5th Year), CB Donald Strickland (6th Year) *
San Francisco heads into the 2008 season expecting to have the same four starters in the secondary. Veterans Nate Clements and Walt Harris are back at the two cornerback spots, while Michael Lewis (strong) and Mark Roman (free) are slated to return at the safety positions. The four combined to make 63 of 64 possible starts last season with one missed start by Harris the only blemish on the record.
Clements lived up to his expectations in his first year with the 49ers by sharing team MVP honors with Patrick Willis. He started all 16 games for his sixth consecutive season and made his presence felt against both the run and the pass; ranking third on the team in tackles (110) as well as tied for first in interceptions (4). He also led the club with three forced fumbles and 18 passes defensed.
"I've been fortunate to coach a lot of Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame corners, and I would say that Nate rates right up there among the top guys in that group," commented Nolan. "Of all the guys I've coached, he is the most-well rounded. He plays a complete game against both the run and the pass, and covers the best receiver every week. He's disappointed if he's not on the best guy."
"I can't say enough about him," added Manusky. "He's got a competitive fire and is a confident player that has helped us at that position."
Harris is back for his third season in San Francisco and enters the 2008 campaign second among active NFL players in career games played (177) and tackles (707), while ranking seventh in interceptions (32).
"Walt has played a lot of years in this league," stated Manusky. "We're still expecting big things from him after what he did here in both 2006 and 2007. He knows how to play the game and the tricks of the trade. He's a knowledgeable player with good range and still has the ability to cover man-to-man."
Lewis made quite an impression in his first season with the 49ers in 2007 when his 139 tackles ranked second only to Willis on the team's final stat sheet and led all NFL defensive backs. Lewis was a Pro Bowler in Philadelphia in 2004, and played in four NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl during his five seasons with the Eagles.
"Michael was a great acquisition last year," offered Manusky. "He can really make plays."
Roman came in with Harris in 2006 and has started all 32 games since. He put up bigger numbers in his second year with the 49ers, increasing his tackle total to 82 after stopping 61 opponents as a San Francisco rookie.
"Mark is knowledgeable and understands how things work in the secondary," said Manusky.
San Francisco could be very deep at the cornerback spot behind Clements and Harris with seven others corners on the roster heading into training camp.
Third-round draft pick Reggie Smith (Oklahoma) along with veterans Shawntae Spencer and Donald Strickland are the most likely candidates to play in the team's nickel packages or spell Clements and Harris.
Tarell Brown is a promising second-year young cornerback but is looking to overcome a knee injury that he suffered in last season's finale, while Marcus Hudson also has potential at the position. Allen Rossum was brought in primarily as a returner but also plays cornerback, while Markus Curry will compete for a roster spot after joining the team's practice squad for the final five games of the 2007 campaign.
Although the Lewis-Roman duo is expected to start at their respective safety spots again in 2008, a couple of their backups have also been impressive.
Keith Lewis is a notoriously hard-hitter and also one of the team's best special teams players, and is a capable backup for Michael Lewis. Dashon Goldson, who is rapidly emerging at the free safety spot, continues to impress the coaching staff at practice.
Undrafted rookie free agent safeties Lewis Baker (Oklahoma) and D.J. Parker (Virginia Tech) are looking to earn a roster spot.