When the new league year began on March 14, 49ers safety Jimmie Ward was guaranteed over $8 million for the 2018 season. The last two seasons Ward ended the year on the injured reserve list, leaving most people to question his ability to stay healthy, as well as people not knowing what position fits him best.
Is he a safety? Is he a nickel back? Is he a cornerback?
When the new coaching staff was assembled and Robert Saleh was named the defensive coordinator—coming from the Gus Bradley coaching tree—most of the football heads jumped to the conclusion Saleh would be running a “Seattle Seahawks” Cover 3 scheme. And they were right. The most important position on that defense is your deep middle free safety. Earl Thomas set the standard extremely high for that position with his ability to play sideline to sideline, and be instinctive vs. the run and pass.
In seven games last season, Ward had 1 pass defensed. That’s not ideal.
When I put on the film, a few things jumped out to me about Ward. One positive is that he is very physical. On several occasions from the free safety position he was making big hits on receivers.
I love the physical aspect of his game. You definitely want an enforcer back there, someone who will make receivers think twice about going across the middle of the field. My one issue with Ward at free safety is, he never made any plays.
I never saw him separate the ball from receivers. No interceptions. No forced fumbles. Just big hits after receivers caught the ball.
Against the Rams, a defensive back was beat and Ward did a great job of making up for his teammate's mistake by seeing it, reacting, and laying the lumber on the receiver. But again, it still resulted in a catch.
One thing Ward has going for him heading into the 2018 season is the signing of Richard Sherman.
The long-time Seahawk may be able to share secrets as to how Earl Thomas is so good at the position, whether it’s film study, or understanding route concepts and what’s coming, which would ultimately allow Ward to take more calculated risks in order to create more turnovers. Or if it's just him telling Ward to be more aggressive. Sherman might be able to help Ward in his development of playing that key position.
What Ward also has working for him is his versatility and coverage skills. Ward and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt often switched responsibilities. At times you’d see Ward near the line of scrimmage covering tight ends.
Other times they used Ward’s physical abilities to rush the passer.
His versatility should be intriguing for the 49ers moving forward. He has cornerback in his background. Last season he had a few snaps at there when starting cornerback Rashard Robinson left the game for a bit with a minor injury. I’m not sure if he took any reps at cornerback in practice, but in the few snaps he had, he gave up one deep comeback route. With no other receiver to threaten his third, he gave up too much of a cushion to be able to make a play on the deep comeback.
Fit with 49ers:
Jimmie Ward’s athletic ability and versatility is not in question. Improving his ability to play the game with his mind, as well as stay healthy will be the key to him playing with the 49ers in 2018 and beyond. Going into the season, Ward should be in competition with the second-year safety and fan favorite Adrian Colbert. I believe Ward's best fit would be at nickel where you can maximize his ability to cover tight ends and slot receivers, as well as blitz off the edge and be a factor in the run game.
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