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49ers film breakdown: Who starts at free safety?

With several players starting at free safety due to mounting injuries last season, we take a look at who starts in 2019.

New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It seemed like last season a new defensive back rotation was implemented every week. Outside of Richard Sherman, almost every position was up for grabs. At free safety we had several players in the mix: Adrian Colbert started the season; Jimmie Ward came in for relief once Colbert went to injured reserve; Jaquiski Tartt stood in for Ward; both ended up on IR. Antone Exum and rookie D.J. Reed also logged time at free safety this past season.

Each player has pros and cons, but the competition to me comes down to two players: Colbert and Ward. I eliminated Tartt because he fits more at the strong safety role when healthy. DJ Reed excelled at the nickel corner spot, and was an instant upgrade over K’Waun Williams. He will probably continue to push for time there. I don’t see Exum as a viable starting option at either position, unless injuries occur again. Now, there’s lots of chatter about Earl Thomas coming to town, but until then, I believe Colbert or Ward give offer the best option at the position. Let’s compare and contrast.

We’ll consider all the things a free safety in this scheme needs to do, and we will look at tape from both players in reference to those duties.

Deep Coverage

Although last season the defense evolved into more cover 2 man/zone, the core of the defense is a cover 3 man/zone scheme. This requires the middle safety to play center field and keep everything in front of him. In review of last season, Colbert had a tendency to let things get behind him. While he was originally a safety at Texas, Colbert gained most of his starting experience at cornerback for the Miami Hurricanes. He was drafted as a corner, but heavy competition and injuries thrust him into the safety position where he did well. Ward however had the opposite experience. He was a safety at Northern Illinois, but the 49ers wanted to convert him to cornerback. The jury is still out on that argument. Both players have speed, 4.4 40-yard dash, but take into account Jimmie Ward ran a 4.4 with a stress fracture in his foot during his pro day.

Versus the Detroit Lions, Stafford opts for the crossing route, but Colbert was in no position to defend the deep route on the outside.

Versus the New York Giants, Ward shows how deep you should be in a single high look.

Versus the Kansas City Chiefs, Colbert again leaves the deep middle open, Sherman saves the touchdown.

Versus New York, Ward gets deep and prevents the completion to Odell Beckham, Jr.

Read and React

The free safety in this scheme also requires a player to be able to know his role, and make a move without hesitation. One false step and it’s a deep completion, or a lost angle on a long run. While players have tape of mishaps, Colbert seemed to struggle more with concepts and reacting. The first play of the Arizona Cardinals game that went for 75 yards comes to mind—and that was misread by Colbert.

Versus the Green Bay Packers, Colbert shifts too far outside pre-snap and creates an easy pitch and catch for Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams.

Versus Arizona. Ward with his eyes on Josh Rosen reads and breaks on the ball, almost coming away with the pick.

Versus Detroit, even though the play starts, Colbert remains in the same position for far too long. Again, Stafford opts for the short completion but the deep corner is wide open.

Versus Arizona, Ward watches both Rosen and Larry Fitzgerald is able to quickly close on the seam route for the big hit. It takes a vintage “Larry Legend” catch for the completion.

Versus Green Bay, you see some communication between Colbert and Sherman, but at the snap Colbert is simply lost. If he’s supposed to be the QB of the defense, he doesn’t know the play.

Run Support

The free safety must be a thumper. He should invoke fear in opposing receivers, and punish running backs who make it past the front seven. In this aspect, it’s a toss up between both players. While Colbert has the bigger reputation as a hitter, Ward is far from a push over and took down some of the league’s best.

Versus Green Bay, Jimmy Graham comes in at 6 feet, seven inches and 265 pounds. Colbert scoops him with ease despite Graham having 65 pounds on him.

Versus New York, Saquon Barkley breaks through the line but Ward stops him dead in his tracks.

Versus Detroit, The reverse looks like it’s going for a long gain. The runner hits the edge, blocker in front, with nothing but green grass ahead. Colbert covers about 30 yards and stops the run short of a first down.

Versus New York, Barkley doing what he does best: cuts back across the field into wide open spaces. He doesn’t see Ward closing in from across the field. What has the makings of a touchdown ends up a loss of yardage.

So who gets the nod at safety? Soon-to-be free agent Jimmie Ward gives us a solid player at the position. He’s a natural at safety and isn’t learning “on the fly” per se. While he and Adrian Colbert are both good tacklers, Colbert has been known to fly in for the big hit versus Ward who is a consistent wrap tackler. It’s boom or bust when Colbert comes up for the take-down.

Then there’s experience; although both players played multiple positions, Ward has been a decent option at every secondary position while in the NFL. This gives Ward a unique perspective when it comes to playing safety. He’s seen these teams and players from different angles and perspectives.

The only slight I have against Jimmie Ward is health. He’s ended all but one of his campaigns on IR and the jury is still out on Colbert’s ability to stay healthy after also ending last season on IR. If Earl Thomas doesn’t join San Francisco in free agency, do you prefer either one of these two players? Is there another player on the roster you think has the skills to excel? Is there another free agent option that can help solidify the back end? Leave your comments below, Go Niners!