SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A fresh start in a familiar place is bringing out the best in Nnamdi Asomugha.
The four-time All-Pro cornerback felt right at home Saturday as the San Francisco 49ers practiced in pads for the first time in training camp, using the size and press-coverage skills that made him a star during his first stint in the Bay Area.
Asomugha is looking to regain the form at age 32 that made him one of the NFL’s elite defensive players during his first eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
And the defending NFC champion 49ers are looking for an upgrade in their secondary, which struggled in the playoffs during the team’s run to the Super Bowl last season before losing All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson to free agency earlier this spring.
Asomugha, after a forgettable two seasons with Philadelphia, feels he can give the Niners a lift in his return to a region where he also starred during his college days at the University of California.
With San Francisco coming off its first trip to the Super Bowl in 18 years, Asomugha has felt a lift of inspiration and incentive as he embraces his new team. The 11th-year veteran has never been to the playoffs.
“There’s always this feeling of a fresh start because the previous season has never really been that great,” Asomugha said Saturday. “In my career I’ve never been on a playoff team, so it’s never been like we’re going to build off that playoff year from the year before. The fact that they’re building off the Super Bowl definitely changes the whole landscape of how this season is going mentally for me so far. It’s a fresh start, but it’s building off success.”
Asomugha needed a fresh start after his time with the Eagles, who were proclaimed a Super Bowl contender after Asomugha signed a five-year, $60 million deal as one of the NFL’s top free agents of 2011.
But the Eagles faltered during Asomugha’s two seasons and some wondered whether his best days were behind him. Asomugha ranked near the bottom of starting NFL cornerbacks last season in several statistical categories, and was released in March when he and the Eagles could not agree on terms of a restructured contract.
Asomugha is putting that behind him with the 49ers, working to find his niche on a team that finished third in the NFL last season in total defense and fourth in passing defense.
“I’m kind of still letting it play out,” Asomugha said. “I think I’ve been fitting in well so far just learning the defense and being able to make plays out there. That’s been one of the big things I’ve been happy about, my ability to make plays in this defense so far judging out there from the spring and summer. Now that it’s early in training camp, I’m just focusing on getting better.”
Asomugha will have to earn his spot on the team after signing a modest one-year, $1.35 million deal in April. The 49ers return their top five cornerbacks from 2012, and there also are other newcomers vying for playing time in the secondary: veteran free agent Craig Dahl and rookie first-round draft pick Eric Reid.
But defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is known for his aggressive style, and his system that mixes man and zone coverage appears to be a good fit for Asomugha, who calls it, “a really nice scheme. The aggressive nature of this defense is just really good. And the players that are around this defense helps anybody out.”
Asomugha will have to be able to help the 49ers in coverage situations if he’s to find success again in the Bay Area, where he played in three Pro Bowls with the Raiders.
His NFL experience and knowledge have been a plus so far, but his time in San Francisco will be determined by his ability to lock down on wide receivers.
“The hunger is definitely there,” Asomugha said.
“It’s definitely a different culture. The whole environment is a lot more positive, a lot more upbeat, a lot more optimistic. And it’s true optimism. It’s not like all the 32 teams in the league coming in and saying this is the year we’re going to win the Super Bowl. It’s coming from a real place. I’ve never been around that.”