Secret Superstars 2014: 49ers
Our Secret Superstar series continues today with the San Francisco 49ers, and while the Niners have had one of the strongest front sevens in football the last several years, we look to the defensive backfield to find our diamond in the rough in cornerback Tramaine Brock.
Brock started his collegiate career playing two years of junior college ball at Mississippi Gulf Coast before transferring to Minnesota for his junior season. He started for the Golden Gophers as a junior in 2008, but was suspended after the season when he became academically ineligible. Brock then transferred to tiny Belhaven University, an NAIA school, and played his senior year for the Blazers in 2009, where he racked up six interceptions, 2.5 sacks, and 13.5 tackles for a loss.
Brock went undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft but signed a free-agent contract shortly after with the 49ers. Brock made the 53-man roster out of training camp and played primarily on special teams in his rookie season.
Paying His Dues
In 2011, he won the nickel cornerback job out of camp, but broke his hand in Week 2 against the Cowboys and by the time he was healthy he had lost his job to rookie Chris Culliver. Brock saw very little action defensively the rest of the year until he had to play 29 snaps in the NFC Championship Game, against the New York Giants, after Tarell Brown went out with an injury. Brock only allowed three catches for 27 yards, but one of those catches was a 17-yard touchdown to Mario Manningham which put the Giants ahead in the fourth quarter.
Culliver held on to the nickel role throughout the 2012 season and into training camp in 2013, where he tore his ACL early in camp and was lost for the season, leaving Brock and newly-signed veteran Nnamdi Asomugha to fight it out for the nickel spot.
Asomugha beat out Brock in training camp for the third corner job, but was mediocre at best the first three weeks of the year (-3.9 overall grade) before hurting his knee late in Week 3 against Indianapolis, opening up the nickel job for Brock.
Getting His Chance
Brock seized upon the opportunity right away, playing 46 snaps in Week 4 versus the Rams as the fifth defensive back. He allowed only three catches for 24 yards with two pass breakups, while earning a +2.0 grade.
The following week against the Houston Texans, Brock had his finest game of the year, picking off Matt Schaub’s first pass of the game and returning it for a touchdown, and then adding a second interception of Schaub later in the half. Brock tallied a +2.5 coverage grade for the night, was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week, and solidified his role as the nickel back going forward.
Brock continued to excel in his nickel role through Week 11, including solid games in Week 7 against Tennessee (+2.5) and in Week 10 versus Carolina (+1.4). Through the Week 11 game against New Orleans, Brock had allowed only 330 receiving yards in coverage, and a 71.1 passer rating when targeted. In that New Orleans game, starting corner Tarell Brown went down with an injury, and Brock was thrust into a starting role.
Making the Most of His Opportunity
Brock played every defensive snap in Weeks 12-14, earning a cumulative overall grade of +4.8 for the three games, while allowing only 54 yards in coverage. When Tarell Brown was healthy enough to return in Week 15, Brown came back in a nickel role, while Brock stayed as the starter at right cornerback.
The 49ers had seen enough of Brock to know he was going to be an important piece going forward, and late in November they signed Brock to a four-year, $16 million extension, keeping him under contract until 2017.
Brock finished the 2013 regular season with a +8.1 coverage grade, which ranked ninth among qualifying cornerbacks. His 55.4% catch rate also ranked in the top third of cornerbacks, and he missed only two tackles during the regular season.
He was only flagged once on defense in all of 2013, an illegal use of hands call while matched up against Harry Douglas late in the fourth quarter against Atlanta in Week 16. Brock immediately atoned for the error a few minutes later, jumping a Douglas route and knocking the ball into the air and eventually the hands of NaVorro Bowman, who took it 89 yards to the house, sealing a 49ers victory and a playoff berth.
While it’s safe to say the 49ers weakest position going into the 2014 season is at cornerback, the one starting position that is set in stone is Tramaine Brock on the outside. With his play in 2013, and the 49ers faith in him with a contract extension that includes $7 million in guaranteed money, Brock should be a fixture in the defensive backfield for several years to come.
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