One of the biggest questions for the 49ers defense is who will step in at nickel back this season.
After five seasons with the 49ers, K’Waun Williams signed with the Denver Broncos during free agency and left DeMeco Ryans to find someone to take his place. The defensive back, also known as “The Shark,” was not only effective in coverage but in blitz packages.
The are a few options to fill the void at nickel back, and the front runner seems to be Darqueze Dennard, who the team signed prior to Week 17 of the 2021 season. During OTAs, defensive backs coach Cory Undlin shared how impressed he was with the veteran’s commitment to be ready to play after only being in the building for a week.
Dennard camped out in Undlin’s office, rarely leaving team headquarters. Once on the field, the former first-round pick impressed the entire 49ers coaching staff enough to sign him to a one-year contract for the 2022 season. During OTA practices, Dennard was been seen with the first team as the nickel back.
Deommodore Lenoir is another option for the 49ers as the slot corner. The sophomore defensive back began his NFL career starting in the first two games of the year but faced some challenges as the season progressed. Lenoir was inactive during the postseason after appearing in 13 games.
Undlin shared that learning the nickel back role is a huge undertaking that is difficult for many veterans, not to mention a rookie. Now, with a season under his belt, Lenoir could make a play for the role.
Jason Verrett has played predominantly on the outside, but did get some experience at slot corner when he was with the then San Diego Chargers. Because a slot corner does not need to be on the field for 100 percent of defensive snaps, it could be the perfect way for Verrett to return from the Achilles injury he suffered in Week 1 of the 2021 season.
While there is likely a learning curve for most outside corners moving to the inside, Verrett’s coverage skills and knowledge of the game could give him an advantage. The 31-year-old has yet to participate in on-field drills but has been seen coaching up the younger members of the group during OTAs.
Rookie Sam Womack also has a shot to compete for the nickel back position. The Toledo product might be a long shot for a starting role, but his five seasons of experience in college could play a factor.
In 2021, Womack registered a standout 15 pass breakups, ranking him No. 1 in the MAC, a position he held for three straight seasons (7 in 2020, 15 in 2019). Through his five college seasons, Womack registered 126 tackles -- 4.5 for loss -- 39 passes defended and five interceptions.
When players report to training camp on July 26, this competition will only begin to play out.