One of the more interesting storylines heading into San Francisco 49ers training camp is the status of 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward. Ward came to the team in 2014 having spent time in college playing free safety and nickel back. He made the full-time move to nickel back his first year with the 49ers. He moved to outside cornerback in 2016, and then to free safety in 2017. He spent this year’s offseason workout program once again participating at outside cornerback.
Given the 49ers depth at both positions, on paper it seems like Ward will be the first man off the bench if there’s an injury. If that’s the case, he’s a solid backup and a starting-caliber player elsewhere.
49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley disagrees. He was presented the question on Matt Maiocco’s podcast and made it out like they may not know Ward’s position, let alone if he’s a designated starter:
“I don’t want to call him a sixth man and I don’t want to call him one of the first man off the bench right now. I think the best 11 guys we have are going to play, and I think he’s going to compete to be one of those guys. Like we talked about earlier, I think it was necessary to put him at corner right now because it’s the position he has not played for the longest period of time and we wanted to see what he could do, and he’s shown that he looks like a starting NFL corner. Now all that being said, you know he can be a starting NFL nickel, we’ve seen it, he’s proved it. And we know he can be a starting NFL free safety. So the competition and the training camp, to me that’s going to bring the best out of everybody, out of the whole group. I think when we sit down and talk before the first game and I see you, I think we’ll have an answer. But for now, I think it’s going to play out in training camp.”
If Ward were to hit the bench, it could be a testament to how improved the 49ers secondary has become. Hafley was very vocal on Ward’s performance and effort despite injury concerns. That said, Ward might simply be someone the 49ers just don’t know what to do with or how to use, but picked up his option because of the talent he brings regardless.
So if he’s simply playing cornerback because he hasn’t played it enough, but he didn’t play safety enough to keep his job, what exactly are the 49ers doing?