The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team (rookies don’t count). For the San Francisco 49ers, that player is cornerback Tarell Brown.
On a defense as good as the 49ers’, it’s easy for a very talented player to go unnoticed. While guys like Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, and NaVorro Bowman rightfully get all the attention, Tarell Brown was probably the 3rd biggest named member of their secondary last year, behind #1 cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson, who signed one of the richest contracts ever for a safety this off-season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On a defense that sent 6 players to the Pro-Bowl (due to a combination of skill and the San Francisco Bay Area’s tendency to dominate All-Star game voting), Brown, one of 5 San Francisco starters who didn’t receive the honor, is the definition of a forgotten man. However, he finished the season as by far San Francisco’s highest rated defensive back and most importantly he got better as the season went on, which bodes well for the 28-year-old’s 2013 prospects, as he heads into the final year of his contract. The 49ers would be wise to lock him up now before he breaks out, especially since they could have to deal with long term extensions for Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick next off-season, as well as determine pending free agent Justin Smith’s future with the team.
Brown finished 2012 as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked cornerback, 7th if post-season is included. He didn’t allow a touchdown through the regular season, something only Cortland Finnegan and Antoine Winfield could also say among 16 game starters at cornerback. He was memorably burned for a touchdown by Julio Jones in San Francisco’s eventual NFC Championship victory over the Falcons, but that was the only touchdown he allowed all season, including playoffs, over 779 coverage snaps. He also missed just one tackle all season.
He finished the season allowing 61.1% completion on 113 attempts for 890 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 14 deflections, and 9 penalties. However, he really hit his stride starting week 8, grading out 2.0 (elite) or better on ProFootballFocus in 6 of his final 12 games, including 3 of 4 post-season games (Atlanta excluded). From week 8 on, he allowed 47 completions on 82 attempts (57.3%) for 551 yards (6.7 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. In those final 12 games, he had 13 of his 14 deflections, including a 5 deflection game against Arizona week 8 that was his best game of the season.
While Carlos Rogers is technically the 49ers’ #1 cornerback, the 49ers have their cornerbacks exclusively cover one side of the field, rather than having one guy shadow the opponent’s best receiver, so Brown had plenty of chances to go against the best receivers in the league, especially down the stretch and he more than held his own. Working exclusively on the right side, Brown held Brandon Marshall to one catch for 8 yards on 3 attempts, Jordy Nelson to 1 catch for 8 yards on 2 attempts (in their post-season matchup with Green Bay), and Larry Fitzgerald to 1 catch for 15 yards on 5 attempts in 2 games.
Only Julio Jones, who burned him for 7 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on 9 attempts, got the best of him among the elite receivers he faced down the stretch. With Goldson gone and Carlos Rogers aging, Brown could have his biggest responsibilities yet this season and could finish the year as San Francisco’s de facto #1 cornerback. Based on his play last season, he seems up to the challenge.