Kyle Shanahan is keeping his options open as to one the big questions about the 49ers’ new defense: Is former first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward a cornerback or a safety?
“I’m not sure yet,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “But that’s definitely the subject of discussion. Because I know he’s capable of doing both.”
That Ward, a college safety who was a starter at cornerback last year, could be switching back to safety underscores how important the position is in the 49ers’ new defense. The team may see Ward in the mold of Seahawks Pro Bowler Earl Thomas, a free-ranging safety with the instincts and athleticism to cover ground deep down field in the passing game and the aggressive nature to wallop ball carriers in the running game.
“Yes, we’re going to play a lot of Cover 3” defense like Seattle’s, Shanahan said. “When you you play a lot of Cover 3, you do want that guy in the middle of the field who’s a very good player.”
He said Ward’s versatility gives the 49ers “freedom” when it comes to free agency and the draft.
The 49ers selected Ward, 25, out of Northern Illinois with the 30th overall selection in 2014. He played the role of nickel cornerback and backup safety his first two years in the league before being moved to outside cornerback last season. He remained in that role even after the 49ers’ starting free safety, Eric Reid, tore his biceps midway through the season and was lost for the year.
“We think Jimmie’s our best corner,” head coach Chip Kelly said at the time. The defensive backs coach who served under Kelly last year, Jeff Hafley, will remain in that position this year.
Ward missed half his rookie season with a stress fracture in his foot. Last year he missed three games with a quadriceps injury before being placed on injured reserve in mid December with a shoulder issue and missing the last two games. He also suffered a concussion Nov. 20 against New England but did not miss the following week’s game at Miami.
The 49ers have several other safeties under contract for next season, including Reid, 25, Antoine Bethea, 32, and Jaquiski Tartt, 25. If Ward played free safety, it’s likely that Reid or Tartt would take over the strong safety role that big-hitting Kam Chancellor plays in Seattle.
A move to safety by Ward would make Tramaine Brock and Rashard Robinson the most likely starters at cornerback with Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson and Prince Charles Iworah other options. At nickel, Will Redmond and newcomer K’Waun Williams are the likeliest candidates.