Chris Culliver didn't think of himself as a starter this time last year. After all, before the San Francisco 49ers up-and-coming cornerback tore his knee's meniscus and ACL in the 2013 training camp's first practice, he knew he was behind then-teammates Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown on the depth chart.
With Rogers and Brown gone via free agency, Culliver still isn't focused on a starting role.
His coaches are thinking differently.
Culliver and Tramaine Brock, who took over for Brown last season, have been lining up with the first-team defense in early camp sessions this week.
"Everybody in camp has the license to try and beat them out," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.
This lack of certainty helps explain Culliver's cautious approach.
"I keep playing. I keep working. Then we'll see what happens," Culliver said Saturday, before his first padded practice. "I have the mindset of going out there to compete first."
Free-agent addition Chris Cook, veteran Perrish Cox, second-year pro Darryl Morris and rookies Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker are among the other defensive backs competing for playing time on the perimeter and in the slot.
None have faced Culliver's kind of comeback trail.
Now in his fourth season, the South Carolina product appears healthy and ready to take on a greater share of the defense, even if he won't let on about it.
"I was really pleased with the way he looked physically," Fangio said of Culliver's first practice. "Kudos to our medical staff and everybody that's worked with him. Kudos to him for the work he's put in his rehab.
"I hadn't seen any indication that this is a guy who just came off a year-long, basically, rehab."
Now that he has his legs underneath him, Culliver has more to learn on the field. He appeared in each of the 49ers 32 regular season games in 2011 and '12, sure, but he did so primarily as a nickel cornerback.
Fangio is asking Culliver to join Brock as a full-time starter.
"He really never played much base corner for us when we're in there in our 3-4 package," Fangio said of '11 and '12. "So that'll be new for him from a practice standpoint. Obviously, he's worked on it for us. But for him to go out there and play in those situations will be new for him, and he's got to perfect and show that he knows what to do on all those things."