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Niners didn't address pressing need in defensive secondary

Draft grade simply above average after not selecting cornerback

Safety Eric Reid, the first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, center, holds up a jersey with head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, and general manager Trent Baalke during a news conference at the team's training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, April 26, 2013.

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 11:04 p.m.

SANTA CLARA -- It's customary to give football teams letter grades. We write report cards after games, and we write report cards after the draft, which concluded on Saturday. Here's a fair grade for the 49ers' work in the draft.

“C-plus.”

C-plus is not a good grade, but it's also not a bad grade. It's not failing, and if you get a bunch of C-pluses, you can graduate. The Niners could have had a great draft, an “A.” But their draft was merely acceptable, and that accounts for their grade.

Here's what saves their draft. Their first pick was free safety Eric Reid, a very good player. The 49ers needed a free safety because starter Dashon Goldson went to Tampa Bay for big money the 49ers didn't want to pay. So, the 49ers had a big hole at free safety. Reid filled the hole, addressed their second-biggest need — more on their biggest need in a moment.

They also get credit for drafting Cornellius Carradine, a promising defensive tackle, Vance McDonald, the kind of rugged tight end coach Jim Harbaugh understands, and Corey Lemonier, a linebacker.

Three of the first four picks were defensive players — that's admirable. And they all are “physical,” Harbaugh said physical was the theme of the 49ers' draft.

Give the Niners credit for also taking wide receiver Quinton Patton in the fourth round — it makes you wonder if wide out A.J. Jenkins is shaky. And in the fourth, they drafted Marcus Lattimore, a dynamic running back who will continue to be dynamic if he can return from a busted-up knee — he tore every ligament. They even did well in the fifth round with defensive end Quinton Dial. A team needs pass rushers galore. Starting in the sixth round they were reaching like any other team. I'll skip those picks.

You're probably wondering where the C-plus comes in considering I've praised their picks, and considering I am an easy grader.

I am not criticizing whom they took. I am criticizing the players they didn't take. They virtually ignored cornerback, and that's startling bordering on perverse. The 49ers took one cornerback, someone who did not start in college — Rutgers. His name is Marcus Cooper.

Where did they draft this cornerback?

They drafted him in the compensatory section of the last round, making him the 252nd player drafted, the 30th and last cornerback taken. He was the Niners' final draft pick, the 11th player they selected. He got drafted two spots from the final spot, No.254, reserved for Mr. Irrelevant.

This is what Trent Baalke said about Cooper: “A tall corner that runs pretty well, plays pretty good football, has the traits you're looking for at the position. Hopefully we bring them in and they develop.”

A project.

This is why the Niners should have been serious about drafting a cornerback — they definitely were not. The 49ers have trouble defending fast wide receivers. The 49ers could not beat the lowly Rams last season because slot receivers Danny AmandolaAmendola and Chris Givens went nuts against the San Francisco secondary.

In the Super Bowl, the Niners' secondary could not handle Ravens' slot receiver Anquan Boldin who had six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Lucky for the 49ers, they now have Boldin on their side. That's one way to eliminate the competition.

Here's something you should know. The NFC West, football's toughest division, just got tougher in the fast, wide-receiver department.

The Seahawks signed slot receiver Percy Harvin, who has the potential to torch the Niners. That's why the Seahawks got him. The Seahawks just drafted slot receiver Chris Harper, as big as Boldin but faster. And they already had Doug Baldwin who always does well against San Francisco.

The Rams just drafted Tavon Austin, traded up for him. He was the quickest guy in the draft, and he's a threat to the 49ers' porous secondary. That's why they drafted him. They also drafted Stedman Bailey, who can play the slot, and they drafted Givens last year.

Arizona just drafted Ryan Swope, one of the fastest receivers in the draft.

Every team in the NFC West knows cornerback is San Francisco's weakness. The 49ers' opponents have been gearing up for years to exploit this weakness. There are six games against NFC West opponents in which the 49ers will be more vulnerable than last season.

Or widen the lens. The Giants, a perennial 49ers' rival, has have Victor Cruz, a slot receiver the Niners cannot handle. The Packers have Randall Cobb. The Patriots, a possible Super Bowl opponent, now have Amendola. The Broncos have Wes Welker.

Slot receiver has become a cornerstone position for offenses around the league. On the Rams and Giants, slot receiver is their best offensive player. And the 49ers did nothing to defend these guys, unless you consider Cooper something.

The 49ers needed to draft a significant cover corner. They did not. They needed to draft a significant slot cover guy. They did not. When teams go into an offense called “11 Personnel,” the Niners are in trouble. “11 Personnel” includes a tight end, a running back, and three wide receivers. Good luck to the Niners when they face that with Nnamdi Asomugha (old and slow), Carlos Rogers (old and slow), Chris Culliver (undisciplined in football and life), Tarrel Brown (good but on the final year of his contract), and Cooper (Mr. Almost-Irrelevant).

The 49ers certainly improved their pass rush in the draft. But somebody still has to be in the neighborhood to cover the receiver, or the pass rush does not matter because the receiver is wide open. And here's the rub. The 49ers had ample picks to get a quality corner. They ignored plenty of valid choices when they picked or traded picks.

Five corners went between No. 60 and No. 70 — 11 slots. The Niners were in position to take four of those corners. They traded their 61st pick for the Packers' No. 55 and took tight end McDonald. If they had traded up merely one position from 61, they could have taken a corner at 60. Atlanta, which drafted two corners (first and second rounds), took Robert Alford at 60. Surely, the 49ers had to like one of those cornerbacks between 60 and 70. The rest of the league cannot be that bad in evaluating.

When it came to drafting corners, the 49ers almost pitched a shutout. You have to wonder how many shutouts their current secondary, plus Reid and Cooper — if he even makes the squad — will pitch against the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals.

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