Football / Sports

49ers' retooled secondary off to good start

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- All four defensive backs who started Super Bowl XLVII are gone, magnifying just how different the 49ers secondary will look in 2014.

So what style will define that unit?

"If we can be smart, play aggressive and play together, those are the attributes of a great secondary," Antoine Bethea said Thursday at training camp.

Bethea enters the mix after eight years with the Indianapolis Colts. He'll be paired at safety with Eric Reid, last year's first-round draft pick who made the Pro Bowl.

Cornerback, however, is where the 49ers' greatest mystery will unfold in training camp, specifically on the right side and in the slot.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes what he sees from two potential new starters: Chris Culliver, who is coming off last training camp's knee injury, and Jimmie Ward, this year's first-round draft pick who is projected as the starting nickel back.

Fangio said both have looked "fine" in practice, and although that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, he sounded genuinely pleased and encouraged.

For Culliver, he's lining up on the right side and cutting well. These are his first team drills since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Aug.1.

"I didn't see any indications this is a guy who came off a year rehab," Fangio said.

With Tramaine Brock entrenched as a returning starter on the left side, Culliver's bid for a starting job could hinge on how he compares with Chris Cook, a newcomer who had no interceptions in four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.

Culliver's edge is his experience as the 49ers' No.3 cornerback in 2011-12. Fangio wants him to become a "more complete cornerback" and adjust to pass routes that are different in base situations from the multiple-receiver sets seen in nickel packages.

Ward has been ticketed for that nickel spot -- covering slot receivers -- since the draft.

"I like him mentally," Fangio said. "He's confident without being cocky or arrogant. He knows he's got a daunting task ahead of him, that he was put behind the 8-ball with no offseason work."

Foot surgery in March might have kept Ward out of team drills, but he made an interception in Thursday's debut practice of camp. Bethea praised the rookie for an ability to "always be around the ball."

Ward, after Thursday's practice, said: "This is our dream job. Football is the easy part. I'm just trying to learn the system."

"Everything about him mentally and emotionally will end up being on the plus side of his ledger," Fangio added.

Perrish Cox will challenge Ward for the nickel role, along with Darryl Morris. Carlos Rogers used to occupy that job, but he has gone off to the Raiders, as has right cornerback Tarell Brown. Strong safety Donte Whitner signed with Cleveland, and free safety Dashon Goldson, the fourth member of the 49ers' Super Bowl XLVII secondary, signed with Tampa Bay in the 2013 offseason.

"That's obviously the storyline, that we lost three of four starters (this year)," Reid said. "But we have guys with experience."

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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