Carlos Rogers returns to FedEx Field today to face his former team, but the little-known players next to him may be the future of the 49ers’ secondary.
With Tarell Brown out with a rib injury, 25-year-old Tramaine Brock will make his first career start at right cornerback against Robert Griffin III and a Redskins offense that has slipped since last season but still averages an impressive 257 passing yards a game. Newcomer Eric Wright, 28, will step in when the 49ers turn to their nickel defense.
Brock on Friday signed a four-year, $16 million contract extension, providing at least some clarity to what had been the fuzziest position on the team beyond this season. Brown and Wright are scheduled for free agency in March while Rogers’ conspicuous price tag only gets higher next season.
Rogers, 32, has been the unit’s rock since the 49ers signed the Redskins castoff in 2011. He hasn’t missed a start since, he tied for the team lead with six interceptions his first year in San Francisco – a shock to Redskins observers who watched him drop several would-be interceptions during his Washington tenure – and, along with safety Donte Whitner, he’s been the leader of the secondary.
“It was fairly obvious by the middle of his first year here that he was a very heady player, a very prideful player, very diligent player,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Rogers last week. “And that’s continued to date. ... He works extremely hard in the meeting room, on the practice field, plays the game from the shoulders up with his head. He’s a great example for all young players.”
Rogers, however, is due to earn $6.25 million in base salary alone next season and, as of now, will have the highest salary-cap figure of any 49er.
During the offseason, the 49ers asked Rogers and several other high-priced veterans to take pay cuts. Rogers gambled that his role was too critical and refused, daring the team to release him.
When promising third-year cornerback Chris Culliver went down with an ACL tear at the beginning of training camp, Rogers’ starting role was assured and his gamble paid off.
Still, as valuable as he’s been the last three seasons, it’s unlikely Rogers will be able to call the team’s bluff two years in a row.
Culliver, 25, is midway though his recovery from his knee injury and the 49ers still see him as a future starter. Brock and Wright also are in the mix for key roles. Brock’s four interceptions leads the 49ers and ties him for second in the NFL.
Perhaps most significant, Wright has many of the same skills as Rogers.
A seven-year veteran, he has experience playing outside at cornerback. And like Rogers, he also can slide inside to the increasingly important nickel cornerback role when opponents line up three or more wide receivers.
Wright is four years younger than Rogers and promises to be easier to re-sign after two DUI arrests in Los Angeles in the last year and a half. The local district attorney dismissed the 2012 case and is still deciding whether to file charges in the most recent one, which occurred in July.
Wright’s most recent club, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, grew weary of the cornerback’s troubles and released him last summer. The 49ers were the only team that showed interest, an indication that they may not have much competition for Wright during the upcoming free-agency period.
Furthermore, Wright is from San Francisco and has said he’s “living out my dream” by playing for the 49ers.
Wright also is the only 49ers cornerback to have faced Griffin, having done so last year with Tampa Bay, a 24-22 win for the Redskins.
“People are trying to figure him out,” Wright said of the Washington quarterback. “But with a guy like that, it’s kind of hard. He’s the type of player that can make great plays in the passing game as well as the running game. He’s the general of that offense, and we definitely have to be prepared for that.”