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Jimmie Ward, 49ers look to be ahead of nickel curve

The San Francisco 49ers drafted Jimmie Ward, which would appear to be a somewhat prescient move. The nickel role has become more important in recent years, and Ward could be the perfect fit for the 49ers.

Rob Carr

The San Francisco 49ers surprised some folks when they used their first round pick on safety Jimmie Ward. We quickly got some clarification on how the 49ers would use Ward. Scouting reports talked about his work as a slot corner, and Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh both said Ward would get work at both nickel back and safety.

The 49ers have followed that approach, giving him snaps at both positions in training camp. In their preseason opener, the 49ers used him at cornerback (mix of slot and outside) for 22 snaps, and at safety for ten snaps. Given the 49ers have Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea at their two safety positions, the extra safety time could potentially be a precursor to cutting Craig Dahl at the end of training camp. If they keep Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris, and Reid or Bethea got hurt, Ward could move to safety, and Cox or Morris could move to nickel. This is assuming Ward wins the nickel job.

On Wednesday, Vic Fangio was asked about Ward's offseason and training camp, and how he is coming along.

"Yeah, we've given him a lot of reps there trying to get him to learn the position. There's a lot to learn there. Basically, the nickel becomes like a linebacker. He has to learn how to play zones from a linebacker's perspective. He has to play man on a slot. He has to know his correct leverage and help where it is, etc. There's a lot to learn there. So we've given him more than enough reps and he's gotten a lot of reps in the practices that you guys don't even see, these walkthroughs that we have. We're trying to get him schooled and ready to go."

The timing of this discussion is interesting, as Doug Farrar put together a look at the recent evolution of the nickel role. NFL offenses have evolved to use more and more 3- and 4-WR sets. We've seen extensive nickel and dime from the 49ers. According to Football Outsiders game-charting, the 49ers used 5+ defensive backs 53 percent of the time in 2011, 65 percent of the time in 2012, and 59 percent of the time in 2014.

The 49ers parted ways with Carlos Rogers this year as his contract was growing unwieldy against the team's salary cap situation. Additionally, while Rogers remained effective in the slot, the team needed to get younger in certain aspects of the defense. They addressed that by drafting Ward. It would appear to be easier to find a guy with slot experience than to rotate a guy from the outside who is just used to working outside. Farrar spoke with Greg Cosell, who made a good point about outsider cornerbacks:

"They're not comfortable playing two-way gos, and you get those in the slot. A lot of cornerbacks grow up playing outside. If they're playing man, they're comfortable with the sideline as a defender, basically. They know that they can play that way, and they're comfortable with certain techniques that you can only play on the outside. There are a lot of good corners who just are not comfortable playing inside. Let's say you're playing man-free coverage -- if you're doing that [in the slot], you have no help to the outside. There's a lot more room to defend, and it's just harder."

As Fangio pointed out in his comments up above, Ward has a lot of work to do to be an effective slot corner, but he has the advantage of having the college experience. Given the work he is getting at safety, I do wonder what his future holds. If he proves to be an effective slot corner, do they still potentially move him to safety to replace Antoine Bethea in a couple years? That has never been directly stated, but at some point the 49ers will need to pair somebody else with Eric Reid.

I like the idea of keeping Ward's versatility, mainly since it could save a roster spot the team might need to spend on another safety. And given how much more important the nickel role has become in recent years, it might make sense to instead find a new safety in the draft in a year or two. It is probably too early to have an overly serious discussion about this, but nonetheless, how do you see this developing?