Kurtenbach: The 49ers’ biggest need was exposed against Tennessee

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The 49ers have their quarterback of the future. Jimmy Garoppolo has made that undeniably clear over the last three weeks.

And over the last few weeks, we’ve also seen that the 49ers have a few other foundational pieces for their rebuild:

• Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor should be catching passes from Garoopolo for years to come.
• Trent Brown and Joe Staley should be the bookends of the Niners’ offensive line, protecting Garoppolo, as well.
• DeForest Buckner has proven himself to be an impact player and possible All-Pro on the defensive line and Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead should be reaping the benefits of the chaos he creates in 2018 and beyond.
• K’Waun Williams should be playing in the slot for the 49ers defense for the next half-decade.
• The 49ers are covered at safety with Jaquiski Tartt, Eric Reid (should he be re-signed), and Adrian Colbert, all of which have played well and shown off their versatility this year.
• And the Niners have a middle linebacker, in Rueben Foster, who is a bonafide a game-changer.

This 49ers’ roster is absolutely a work in progress, but it’s not the worst roster in the NFL anymore (congrats Indianapolis!) — head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have some strong talent to work with in the years to come.

But Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans made it painfully obvious what the 49ers are missing from their surprisingly robust list of foundational pieces: a No. 1 cornerback.

Dontae Johnson, bless him, had another woeful game on Sunday, A week after he was torched by Deandre Hopkins, Johnson was left spinning by the Titans, who don’t have elite receivers. Rishard Matthews, Corey Davis, and Eric Decker took anything they wanted against the 49ers’ fourth-year corner, who has now gone 54 games without an interception.

It’s fair to say that Johnson would have a hard time making another NFL active roster — even at this late stage in the season — but he was on the field for all 64 snaps against the Titans Sunday.

Opposite Johnson, rookie Ahkello Witherspoon — an impressive physical fit for the Niners’ Cover-3 system — was fine, but Johnson’s play required the Colorado product to be near-perfect to cover up for his teammate. He was not perfect, and Marcus Mariota posted a 110.8 quarterback rating for the Titans.

While the rest of the defense was playing well — Brock Coyle even looked ok at linebacker — the 49ers’ cornerback play, particularly Johnson’s, gave Tennessee a lead with 1:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. (Thank goodness for Garoppolo.)

Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) makes a catch in front of San Francisco 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson (36) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) makes a catch in front of San Francisco 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson (36) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

As a rebuilding team, the 49ers have many serious needs going into this offseason — they need to improve across the board if this late-season momentum (which, even with back-to-back losses to end the season, will persist), and they’ll have ample capital both in free agency and the draft to make those necessary moves.

The 49ers need upgrades at wide receiver, the interior of the offensive line, along the defensive line, and at linebacker, running back, and tight end if they’re to compete for a postseason spot next year, but more than anything they need a cornerback who can shut down one side of the field for their defense.

Without a serious upgrade at cornerback, the entire defense is susceptible — it’s not really a Cover-3 scheme when you always have to bracket the opposing team’s top wide receiver because an outside corner can’t even run with him.

The 49ers’ issue: they need a player that fits a specific role. Not any cornerback will do.

Cornerbacks in single-high safety systems, need to be big and physical with receivers — Richard Sherman is the prototype.

Witherspoon has potential to be that kind of corner, but he’s nowhere near lock-down right now.

But after four seasons, it’s fair to say that Johnson, who is the third-worst rated cornerback in the NFL per Pro Football Focus, is not the guy for the job.

San Francisco 49ers' Dontae Johnson (36) tackles Tennessee Titans' Jonnu Smith (81) after a catch in the first quarter of their NFL game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
San Francisco 49ers’ Dontae Johnson (36) tackles Tennessee Titans’ Jonnu Smith (81) after a catch in the first quarter of their NFL game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

So where do the Niners go to find this all-important piece? They could acquire an established No. 1 cornerback via trade (Sherman might be available) or free agency. If the Niners do opt to add a corner (or two, or three) via free agency, their top target should be the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson, a Cover-3 prototype who has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league for a few years.

Johnson is going to cost serious money this offseason — he’s been franchise tagged by the Rams for the last two years. While the Niners have cash to spend, they might not be keen to put big bucks into the cornerback position — the position is boom-or-bust.

If the Niners don’t want to use that precious cap space, they could draft a cornerback. The problem with that is that this draft has only one top-10-worthy cornerback — Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick — who while big and physical might be a better option to play as a freelancing safety. It’ll be interesting to see how the Niners evaluate Fitzpatrick — he could be a perfect fit, he could be off the team’s board entirely (safety is a low priority).

Perhaps the 49ers’ front office just brings in a ton of bargain free agents and third-day draft picks to training camp to see if any of them can stick — that wouldn’t be the worst idea either.

The method, frankly, doesn’t matter. Whatever works. But however the 49ers’ front office does it, they need to have a viable No. 1 cornerback on the field opposite Witherspoon and Williams next season.

On a team with plenty of needs, that role is the most glaring.

And until the 49ers find a fit for that role and fill that hole on the right side of their defense, we can pump the brakes on all of that 2018 hype.

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