Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players in 2017 takes a look at defensive back Jimmie Ward and his position switch to free safety this season.
The San Francisco 49ers are going through vast transformations in advance of the 2017 NFL season, and fourth-year pro defensive back Jimmie Ward is a part of those changes.
Ward, who has spent the near entirety of his pro career as a cornerback, will shift back to his natural free safety position under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
The hope is this switch will maximize Ward’s natural skill set, as he looks to patrol San Francisco’s last line of defense.
Ward, drafted No. 30 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, endured a forgettable rookie season, as many may remember. But he did manage to turn a page in 2015 and, a year later, ended up being one of the Niners’ best defensive players on an otherwise terrible unit.
The switch from corner to safety opens up a void at corner — one which the Niners hope to have addressed both in free agency and the draft.
But, more importantly, it gives Saleh a versatile piece at the very back end of the defense.
So what should we expect from Ward this upcoming season, and how can this transition benefit both he and the Niners defense?
Why He’ll Improve
One should know Ward’s primary position at Illinois was safety, and his 5-foot-11, 193-pound frame is best suited for a free safety spot.
This would make one assume the transition will be seamless — Ward is basically returning to the role that helped him get drafted in Round 1 to begin with.
As noted before, the free safety position is often the last line of defense. Especially if Cover 3, with a single-high safety, is the primary scheme. Teams need sure tacklers with good converging speed in this setup.
And, according to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers have one in Ward:
In an ideal world, Ward would emulate Seattle Seahawks All-Pro safety, Earl Thomas.
“Earl Thomas, Coach Haffley just pushed that out to me right now,” Ward said when asked if he had been watching the Seattle defensive back, per Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “But I already had been watching Earl Thomas. He’s one of my favorite players.”
If Ward comes anything close to Thomas-like production, San Francisco’s secondary should be in excellent shape.
Why He’ll Regress
Injuries have already been a major part of Ward’s career thus far. He missed all but eight games his rookie season, and a shoulder injury forced him to miss five additional games in 2016.
Both he and fellow safety Eric Reid have a bit of an injury history. So it makes sense the Niners are exploring depth options behind these two, namely players like Lorenzo Jerome, Vinnie Sunseri, Don Jones and Chanceller James.
Ward’s health is a must have for San Francisco. But what about the switch and scheme fit?
While this was Ward’s natural position in college, it’s important to note he hasn’t played a full-time safety role since 2013 — four years ago. There may be a little of the proverbial “rust-shaking” early on this season.
This could mean a somewhat painful adjustment period for Ward, as he relearns a position and scheme new to him at the pro level.
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What to Expect in 2017
It’s hard to bet against Ward adjusting to this new assignment this season. Many a defensive back transition from corner to safety with few problems, and Ward has the distinct advantage of having filled this role previously.
So while the scheme worry is there, it’s probably not worth shouting about too much.
Yet the injury concern is real and could be another issue for Ward and San Francisco’s secondary this season. The Niners do have veteran depth in guys like Sunseri and Jones, although it remains to be seen who makes the roster cuts before Week 1.
The best-case scenario, of course, would be Ward not missing any games this season and regularly providing an impact to the team’s defense.
Assuming he stays healthy, and thrives within this re-discovered role, the 49ers should finally have an established playmaker at the back end of their secondary.