S ANTA CLARA The 49ers have blown up the impressive secondary they built in 2011.
It made 22 interceptions that season and ranked in the top 10 in pass defense the past two seasons. At least one member has been voted to the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons.
But if you thought that unit was going to be outstanding when it was being assembled, you are either clairvoyant or – more likely – fibbing.
One of the starting cornerbacks in 2011, Tarell Brown, had started only five games in the previous four seasons – and none in 2010. He got a chance only because Shawntae Spencer pulled a hamstring in training camp.
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The other, Carlos Rogers, was considered a first-round bust in Washington and was best known for dropping would-be interceptions at inopportune times. Rogers was so lightly regarded that he lasted more than a week in free agency before the 49ers signed him to a modest one-year deal.
How did the duo do? Rogers finished the season with six interceptions and started in the Pro Bowl. Brown started all 18 games and had five interceptions, including one in the playoffs.
At safety, the 49ers brought in Donte Whitner, an experienced starter, but there wasn’t a big demand for the undersized, over-drafted Whitner on the free-agent market, either, and he also lasted several days before being signed. Whitner went on to have the most iconic defensive play of the 49ers’ playoff run when he knocked Saints running back Pierre Thomas out of the game on New Orleans’ opening drive.
On other side, Madieu Williams – yes, Madieu Williams; I triple-checked it – started the first two games before Dashon Goldson took over. Goldson tied Rogers for the team lead with six interceptions and, like Rogers, made his first Pro Bowl.
The 49ers also tied for the league lead in takeaways.
All of which means it’s impossible to judge a team or a unit until it starts playing together.
At this point, the 49ers’ starting secondary consists of Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver at cornerback and Eric Reid and newcomer Antoine Bethea at safety. The top backups at cornerback are Eric Wright and Chris Cook, each of whom has made bigger waves with off-the-field issues than with on-field performance.
The conclusion of fans after nearly a week of free agency is that the 49ers have taken a step backward. But the same people who were complaining three years ago about starting cornerbacks Brown and Rogers are the ones whining that the team has inadequately replaced the duo this offseason.
Wait until September – or, better yet, December – to make that assessment.
After all, everyone felt there would be a drop in 2013 when Reid, a rookie, took over for Goldson, who had been with the 49ers for six seasons. If there was a decline, it was hard to see. The 49ers allowed 19 passing touchdowns and had 14 interceptions when Goldson was the starter in 2012. They gave up 19 touchdowns and had 18 interceptions with Reid starting a year later.
The 49ers still could add some free-agent defensive backs to the mix. But with the team less than $4 million under the salary cap, there are unlikely to be any splashy acquisitions.
Instead, expect any significant additions through the draft. The 49ers have the 30th pick in the first round and two picks in both the second and third rounds. Two names likely to be discussed are Jason Verrett of TCU and Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech. Both are cornerbacks capable of playing close to the line of scrimmage in the slot position, where Rogers played the last three seasons.
Most of all, the 49ers have two very good coaches, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive-backs coach Ed Donatell, overseeing the secondary.
Perhaps Fangio’s greatest achievement in three seasons with the 49ers is, with limited time in the lockout-shortened 2011 offseason, he put the right players in all the right spaces. Brown, for example, never had been a full-time starter, and Rogers never had played in the slot.
Fangio has a full offseason to work his magic this year. Fans should have confidence he will do so by Sept. 7.