49ers need to get Jimmie Ward back at safety now

Jimmie Ward #1 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Jimmie Ward #1 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) /

The 49ers welcomed Jimmie Ward back in full in Week 7, but he primarily played nickel cornerback. He should revert back to safety instead.

There is a philosophy the San Francisco 49ers have had in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s tenure: putting the best 11 players on the field at any given time.

In theory, this makes sense. However, it isn’t always in the best interest of the team.

Shanahan might not always make the full call on defense, those responsibilities falling on defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, yet there was an interesting wrinkle during the Niners’ lopsided Week 7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Veteran defensive back Jimmie Ward, who suffered a broken hand in the Week 5 win over the Carolina Panthers after coming off injured reserve and who subsequently had to miss Week 6 because of his new injury, ended up playing nickel cornerback.

Not free safety, his natural position and where San Francisco has fielded him almost exclusively since 2018.

“I don’t know, man,” Ward responded to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle when asked if he’d soon go back to free safety. “I’m just going to do what the coaches tell me to do. It’s my last year under contract. I’m just trying to be a great team player.”

The 49ers could afford to move Ward down to nickel cornerback for a couple of reasons.

For starters, even though he was penciled in as the starter prior to his pre-Week 1 hamstring injury that landed him on IR, the Niners’ free-agent pickup of Tashaun Gipson has made Ward a bit of an excess commodity, at least in theory. According to Pro Football Focus, Gipson has earned a solid 75.7 overall grade on the year and even was pegged to start at free safety in Week 7 upon Ward’s return.

Additionally, San Francisco has yet to identify a true starting-caliber nickel option. During the preseason, rookie defensive back Samuel Womack seemed to have that role locked down, but he’s been inconsistent with the games actually counting, while second-year pro Deommodore Lenoir has been equally up and down.

Ward, who played nickel corner upon breaking into the league way back in the 2014 NFL Draft, at least has the versatility.

However, as both Ward’s former 49ers teammate, Jaquiski Tartt, and Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn argued, Ward is still the Niners’ best free safety:

There’s more to putting Ward back at free safety than just the natural fit and on-field prowess, too.

49ers need to do right by Jimmie Ward and move him back to safety

As Cohn pointed out, and as Ward reminded Branch, the 31-year-old longest-tenured San Francisco player is in a contract year.

Already having made the NFL Top 100 entering this season, Ward’s value on the open market in 2023 already took a hit with his five-game absence so far because of injuries. At this stage in his career, he’s probably looking at one more sizable free-agent contract to sign this upcoming offseason.

Whether or not that deal is with the 49ers is anyone’s guess, but affording him the chance to play his natural position where he earned those NFL Top 100 accolades would be the right move from a business standpoint.

And that would show just how much the Niners respect and appreciate their most impactful players, especially those who have accompanied the team for so long.

Other players take note of this, too.

Back in 2017, former safety Eric Reid was open about his frustrations with Shanahan and his staff after being asked to move to linebacker in a contract year. Exactly how much that bled over to influencing other players both on and off San Francisco’s roster is anyone’s guess, but the point is that players do take account of this sort of thing.

Ward has been far more valuable to the 49ers since, and asking him to perform some other role than what he normally excels at is a disservice.

Both to the defense and to his future prospects for a new contract.

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