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Article Title: Spencer provides valuable insurance
Article Date: May 22nd 2004
By Sydney

As much as the 2004 NFL Draft was a smashing success with the first two picks by the San Francisco 49ers the third pick by them was as equally astounding. In round two after taking Alabama’s Justin Smiley the 49ers addressed their secondary by selecting Pittsburgh’s Shawntae Spencer with the 26th pick in the second round and 58th pick overall. Shawntae Spencer is Pittsburgh’s lost child so to speak in that much of the heightened publicity has been centered on its elite wide receiver prospect in Larry Fitzgerald.

Shawntae Spencer comes in at cornerback to the San Francisco 49ers to provide immediate depth and playmaking skills in the nickel and dime defense. He will play almost immediately this season in a rotation with versatile Dwaine Carpenter who made a name for him in several plays last season at free safety. Carpenter is being an eye though as a back-up safety prospect more so than a cornerback.

The 49ers also have some other young faces in the mix with Delaware’s Mike Adams and Oregon State’s Lawrence Turner as well fighting through mini-camps to make a name for them. Shawntae Spencer will have his hands full in making these names a dull thud in their bid to win a roster spot over him as the off-season progresses into full blown training camp.

Shawntae Spencer was kind of a no name in the college ranks as draft days started approaching. He was a surprise pick by the 49ers in my opinion but after doing further research I can see and understand why he was chosen. When you think of great cornerbacks in this year’s draft that stand out to you, you think of Virginia Tech’s DeAngelo Hall or Ohio State’s Chris Gamble. Even South Carolina’s Dunta Robinson and USC’s Will Poole ring a bell.

But Shawntae Spencer never really made an indent in anything I was thinking about at cornerback. Why? Because maybe it was the fact that he wasn’t invited to play in any of the major-college all-star games and didn’t even get invited to the NFL combine. Shawntae at that point started to believe it wasn’t even possible that he would be drafted at all and accepted the fact that he would wait out free agency. But his status as Pittsburgh’s rising star changed at Pittsburgh’s pro day that was held in March.

This was a day in which more than 100 NFL scouts were watching his every move. He put on an outstanding show that all of them would remember, and it would shoot his draft stock all the way through the roof afterwards. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds and had a vertical leap of 34 and a half inches. The one other number that took scouts by surprise was his shuttle run, a pro day record of 10.5 seconds. Local scout Joe Butler said that time puts him in an elite category. All of this combined with his size had many scouts saying: “He was one of the drafts hidden gems.”

Think about what was just said by the scouts in this one. Certainly the scouts sent by the San Francisco 49ers took notice and they were even more taken in his visit to Santa Clara on April 23rd of this year. Shawntae Spencer had many scouts second-guessing themselves and their evaluations on who were the best cornerbacks in this class.

Certainly he fit a different mold and propelled himself upwards after a series of terrific performances in front of so many. The University of Pittsburgh has a genuine reputation for helping develop some of the finest athletes inside the NFL today and from yesterday. Shawntae Spencer fits that category in every fashion stated. He will be even better then Mike Rumph in my opinion in that he has great size, speed and agility to play the position of cornerback. There is nothing about this position he doesn’t love and he attacks his opponent with relentless determination.

He likes the contact and the mental challenge of going up against elite wide receivers, and what most of you will come to realize is that he loves the game itself. He takes enormous pride in his work and has the ability to shake off bad plays and move on from making mistakes as well.

Here is where many rookies struggle with this as did Mike Rumph in his audition with the 49ers. Not to say that Spencer won’t have his knocks and his troubles because obviously he will, and not to say that he is better overall in comparison to Mike Rumph. But he has a dimension I think that is a bit different. He has a burst coming out of his back pedal like you’d never seen before and he displays good instincts and reaction skills.

If there were something he could do to improve it would be to build upon his slender pipe cleaner of a body. This in itself can be a weakness because of injury. He must gain weight and get a bit stronger to withstand the rigors of an NFL season. Right now, he is more of a drag down type tackler and in the NFL, better players will break these tackles and go on to score anyways.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years,” local scout Joe Butler said. “And I can’t remember a guy who wasn’t at the combine that has shot up like Shawntae. He had a phenomenal workout at pro day and I think he caught a lot of people by surprise with his quickness and speed. His 40 time, his shuttle time, his change of direction were all phenomenal.”

Even NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. Had Shawntae Spencer pegged to go in the first round but some scouts believed he would at least go on the first day. Spencer comes to the team as the 49ers struggle to find stability within their ranks after purging their roster to make salary cap relief a priority. One of the casualties in the secondary was Jason Webster who as the starting opposite cornerback next to a newly resigned Ahmed Plummer.

Webster was cut and Mike Rumph elevated to replace him as he had most of the season due to a series of reoccurring injuries that sidelined Webster for most of the season. Jason Webster never materialized into a shutdown type corner just a solid one at times. Webster went on to join the Atlanta Falcons now led by former 49er defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr.

“At 6-feet tall, with athletic ability, he can make someone an excellent corner,” Butler said. “But he needs to get a little stronger and put some weight on, which is what he’ll do.”

Said Tom Hepler of Ourlad’s Scouting Service: “He’s not afraid to stick his nose in and tackle someone. He’s a little skinny, but he is physical and he plays a position that is at a premium.”

Ahmed Plummer was a wise choice in resigning him by the front office. He effectively takes away one half of the playing field on any given Sunday. Since the start of 2002, Plummer has 35 passes defended, the fourth highest total in the NFL. He finished second on the team with four interceptions. Ahmed Plummer had his ninth and tenth career interceptions against Chicago (9-7-03), including returning one for a 68-yard touchdown, the first of his career.

2002 first-round pick cornerback Mike Rumph showed highly anticipated improvement from his rookie season where he was torn apart almost from the very beginning. He changed both mentally and physically in order to better prepares him for the season. In 2003, Rumph had 64 tackles, three interceptions, two sacks one forced fumble and eight passes defended. In his rookie season he had 40 tackles, no sacks, no interceptions and just four passes defended.

I have even higher hopes for Shawntae Spencer because we need someone that will be phenomenal in the nickel and dime defense, especially where in our division we play a lot of teams with very elite wide receivers. Spencer is the first Pittsburgh Panther to be selected by the 49ers since running back Kevan Barlow was the 80th selection of the third round in 2001.

Spencer’s agent Peter Schaffer after the pro day workout was suddenly swamped with calls regarding Spencer and him coming to visit their facility. “We had to turn down six teams because we don’t have enough dates to see them all. This is unheard of. I’ve never known of a guy who had invitations from 24 teams after getting shutout of the combine and all the all-star games.”

When you think about Shawtae Spencer he was a four-year starter for the Pittsburgh Panthers that was grossly overlooked in the post-season. He finished third on the team in tackles last fall with 82, while also accumulating two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 10 passes broken up. He had 13 tackles in the regular season finale against Miami and 11 a week earlier verses Temple.

In his career, Spencer accumulated 203 tackles, eight interceptions, 53 passes broken up and once boosted a stretch of 27 consecutive games without allowing a touchdown pass. These are incredible numbers for an athlete that wasn’t invited to the combine or any all-star games. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Paul Rhoades was clearly disappointed when he was asked about this same matter.

“His name was given as part of a prospect list,” Rhoades said. “Somebody didn’t put him on the list initially, however, and he fell through the cracks. It was ridiculous that he wasn’t at the combine.”

Rhoades went on to become Spencer’s best ally by distributing practice tapes featuring the cornerback going head-to-head against wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and former Panthers great Antonio Bryant. Fitzgerald as we all know finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up last season and was a first round selection in this draft, while Bryant was a second-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2001 and won the Biletnikoff Award three years before Fitzgerald did in 2003. Both of these wide receivers are the greatest pass-catchers in Pittsburgh history.

The practice tapes and game tapes show clearly how outstanding Spencer is up against these kinds of receivers. NFL scouts were able to determine this by watching and studying the tapes and came away with awesome impressions of the little known cornerback in Pittsburgh because of his absence from the combine and several all-star games.

“Those tapes really helped him because people could see his abilities,” Schaffer said. “Then, the scouts went back and watched films of Shawntae against Miami, Virginia Tech and Syracuse and they saw how good he really is.”

How does someone like this all of a sudden fall through the cracks? That is my question. Obviously someone somewhere made a very serious error in not including this great athlete in the overall arena of competition to be shown on display through the combine and the all-star games.

Here is a cornerback that very well could be the best in the draft or should I say the dark horse of the draft. There is plenty of optimism on this pick folks and I’ll be the first one to say, “you ought to be very impressed” with this athlete.

Pittsburgh’s Shawntae Spencer second round’s 26th pick and 58th overall

Shawntae Spencer has been compared to cornerback Doug Evans and he stands 6-foot-one and weighs 170-pounds. He ran a 4.55 in the 40-yard dash and is very underrated. Strengths: He has great height and very good overall size. He has long arms that knock down many passes when he is in position. He has the size that is needed to match-up well against the taller receivers in the NFL. He has greatly improved his technique in press coverage.

He has the ability to blanket a receiver and knock them off of their route. He is both quick and athletic for his height. He is one of the most overlooked athletes in this draft and he will make the league regret passing him over so carelessly. Weaknesses: He does lack ideal bulk for a cornerback. He will have to add muscle mass to withstand the rigors of an NFL season. He struggles a bit on the turn and run and lacks recovery speed to compensate for his mistakes. Needs more consistency in coverage and has some mental lapses.

Overall: Is a cornerback that will turn some heads and make people regret not taking him seriously. He has improved greatly in press coverage and is best in a physical type scheme that asserts physical attributes in every game situation.

This is the answer to our secondary folks. Insurance in the bank but not without taking his lumps I’m sure, much the same way that Mike Rumph did in his rookie season. With safety Zack Bronson sure to be cut after June 1st to free up salary cap room his ability to assist the secondary will be relied upon more than ever. I am proud of this selection and applaud the management and ownership for taking him with the 58th overall selection. We definitely came away with a real steal here my friends.