In 2010, taking over for Scot McCloughan, former general manager Trent Baalke signed a rookie undrafted free agent out of Belhaven college. That player spent some time on the practice squad. He was 5-10, 198, nothing special physically. Competing from the practice squad, and eventually managing to stick to the 53-man, he grew into a solid reserve and special teamer.
In 2013, his first starting and with a significant role in the nickel, he led the team in interceptions (5), and started three playoff games, the first two of which featured road wins against MVP quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. Soon after, he was looked to as a team veteran and dependable starter.
That success story all came crashing down for Tramaine Brock one Friday in early April, in what was supposed to be the first season of a new era for San Francisco. He put his hands on a woman the night before – and was arrested for felony domestic violence and released on bail in Santa Clara, the home of the 49ers’ still creaky cathedral.
New boss John Lynch, likely in confluence with head coach Kyle Shanahan, wasted no time showing Brock the door. They cut him within hours of the news. The right move, and it hopefully applies to all tiers of their players if a situation like this ever rears its ugly head again.
But in the wake of the release, many are wondering how this affects the football side of things, particularly with the draft.
What does Brock vacating the spot mean?
The understanding was always that Rashard Robinson would be CB1 in the new regime and the 49ers’ new staff would be in the market for another imposing starter. As of now, Robinson is the best defensive back on the team, and if his rookie season wasn’t a fluke, he may be the most viable building block on defense, period.
That’s the player they couldn’t afford to lose.
Brock was an above average Pro Football Focus cornerback, but to the avid watcher, he was among the top three entrenched starters from the old regime the 49ers were likely looking to replace this offseason; “upgrade,” rather. He’s on the wrong side of 25, and is an unspectacular athlete in a league that is seeing a boom in large, quick-cutting receivers with track speed.
Moreover, this reads like an opportunity.
The 49ers are implementing the Seahawks’ Cover 3 defense with new coordinator Robert Saleh. And Seattle has established a successful model to combat today’s pass-happy league, and that is by building a defense from the back forward (safeties/corners to the defensive line, rather than the traditional vice versa).
The 49ers can prioritize the position a bit more in the draft and form a fierce 1-2 punch of Robinson and a player to be named later. With no identity yet, it could be what pushes the defenses through to the next level.
What’s the draft implication?
To begin, Richard Sherman isn’t walking through the door at 4949 Centennial, so let’s get that out of the way. I wouldn’t expect to see Russell Wilson’s Super Bowl nightmare Malcolm Butler, either. Those are the two pre-draft options if the 49ers are looking to settle the position then and there, and neither seems realistic.
Entering the draft, the situation could slightly alter the team’s thinking, but likely not by much. They have the same options they had before—they’re just a little more front of mind now.
The 49ers have talked about moving former first-round pick and struggling cornerback Jimmie Ward to safety, which is still possible, even though we’re still almost a full month away from the draft and even further from training camp. But if anything, Ward could continue to play cornerback, nickel and reserve FS, while the 49ers draft Malik Hooker to be their centerfielder with the second overall pick.
The road has been cleared for that now.
The other way to go, and maybe the more risk-averse method, would be to commit to moving Ward to safety—where I’ve long believed he’d excel vs. CB—and bring in a true cornerback in the first, second or even third round of the NFL draft. It’s very possible the 49ers find starter material on Day 2 as late as Round 3; the class in 2017 is deep enough and it’s not uncommon to find late-round contributors.
Washington’s Kevin King and LSU’s Tre’Davious White become more intriguing options with the No. 34 overall pick, or as possible trade-up targets. White, a top-ranked CB in this class, was also Robinson's teammate with the Tigers. The two could welcome a reunion. Or maybe it’s Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey or Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie that fall, a couple of 6-footers with strong resumes.
Gators cornerback Quincy Wilson is also a great talent from a university known for churning out DBs and could be had at good value.
Now injured and rehabbing a torn Achilles, former first-round prospect Sidney Jones of Washington becomes interesting on Day 2. Long-term, the 49ers could be happy they went with him.
If the team secures any one of these names, you’re talking about an investment at the cornerback position overall and an instant upgrade over Brock. King and Robinson, or White and Robinson, or whatever your preference may be, it’s clear to see San Francisco could quickly tighten up and become excellent at one position, not having to worry about it in 2018.
The swift departure of Brock pushes us further into the Lynch-Shanahan era and allows the future Hall of Fame safety to tailor make his secondary around Robinson.
And one last footnote being, look who’s going to be right there the whole way with Lynch but the man that coached Sherman, Earl Thomas and Brandon Browner in Seattle in Saleh, and the man that co-constructed Denver’s star-studded “No Fly Zone” in Adam Peters. Hopefully Martin Mayhew’s experience in Detroit gives them an idea of what not to do, as well.
But all in all, there’s a lot of expertise and a lot of opportunity with this recent development.
Hero image courtesy Houston Chronicle