Quarterbacks don't like watching their passes end up in the hands of a defender, but in this case McLeod Bethel-Thompson was happy to make an exception.
After the 49ers' practices this spring, cornerback Chris Cook would pull Bethel-Thompson aside and for 20 or so minutes have him put ball after ball up for grabs.
The exercise – in which Cook runs or back peddles down field and tries to locate the ball in the air – was designed to increase the cornerback's interception count, which is stuck on zero despite 30 starts over the past four years in Minnesota. By contrast another 49ers cornerback, Tramaine Brock, has seven interceptions in 10 career starts.
“When the ball’s thrown up you’ve got to be able to find the ball and make a play on the ball. And he’s struggled there in his past,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Cook. “So whatever we can do to improve him in that area will go a long way in helping his career.”
Fangio and the rest of the 49ers' staff had plenty of opportunity to watch Cook, 27, in recent weeks.
Chris Culliver was still working his way back from last year's ACL injury while another veteran cornerback, Eric Wright, sprained his ankle in May and then decided to walk away from football in June.
That allowed Cook, who signed a league-minimum, one-year deal with the 49ers in March, to work with the first-team defense opposite Brock. Cook lined up at right cornerback; Brock was on the left.
“He’s ascending now that he’s got a good grasp and understanding of our system,” Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s showing up. He’s making plays, getting his hands on the ball, making interceptions. He’s doing a very good job.”
Said Cook: “The hardest part is getting the terminology down and the language. But other than that, it's just football. I picked it it up pretty easy. It took me two or three weeks to get really comfortable with it. It's to the point now where I hear the calls and I recognize stuff and I know how to react to it.”
Cook is part of revamped 49ers secondary that has only one holdover in a starting spot – free safety Eric Reid – from the beginning of the 2013 season.
Culliver and Brock, who have filled reserve roles in recent seasons, are expected to be the team’s top cornerbacks. They have 18 NFL starts between them, including playoffs. The players they are replacing, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, both of whom are now with the Raiders, have 178 starts between them.
“Anytime you lose two corners (like) Rogers and Brown, guys that have basically played every play here for three years, other than when they had a nick here and there, somebody’s got to step up and replace them,” Fangio said. “And we think we’ve got a group here that we can get those guys from that group. But only time will tell.”
Cook, meanwhile, has experience and is the most physically gifted cornerback on the team. He stood out at the 2010 scouting combined when, after measuring 6-2, 212 pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds and had an eye-popping 11-foot broad jump.
The Vikings selected him early in the second round, No. 34 overall, with the thought that he'd be an ideal weapon in the receiver-rich NFC North division.
But Cook failed to meet expectations in Minnesota where he got into trouble both on and off the field.
In 2011 he was charged with assaulting his girlfriend, which led to a 10-game suspension by the Vikings. Cook was acquitted a year later. In December, he was ejected from a game after making contact with an official following a touchdown by the man he was covering, Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery.
He also failed to come up with a single interception.
Of course, a reputation for poor ball skills – critical drops in big games for Washington -- also preceded Rogers when he joined the 49ers in 2011. He immediately began changing that story line by finishing his first year in San Francisco with six interceptions, one he returned for a touchdown, and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Cook, who is wearing Rogers' former No. 22 this year, is hoping for a similar rebirth. As it stands now, he's the No. 3 cornerback on the outside and would be a starter if either Brock or Culliver were to go down with an injury.
“I'm coming in with a good mindset, a positive mindset and just working hard,” he said.