Jimmie Ward, the 49ers’ first-round draft pick of 2014 and highest-paid defensive player this season, has sat out 32 games in four years due to injuries and has never started more than 10 games in a season.
But defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley wishes 49ers fans who are exasperated with Ward could see what he sees.
“I couldn’t disagree more with anybody who has any negativity about Jimmie,” Hafley said on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “If you ever had a chance to meet him, I think you’d see that. If you ever had a chance to coach him or see how hard he practices and how hard he plays and how he puts his body on the line and gives you everything he has, I think you’d immediately respect him.”
Ward was placed on injured reserve his rookie season with a foot fracture. After playing all 16 games in 2015, his season ended prematurely in ’16 with a fractured shoulder blade. Last season, he missed training camp with a hamstring injury, then appeared in just seven games before sustaining a broken forearm.
“He’s been injured, and you can be frustrated because he’s been injured,” Hafley said. “I mean, I’m sure he’s frustrated that he’s injured. But you have to respect him because of how hard he’s worked and what he does every time he steps out on the field.
“So, now, he has to take care of his body and hopefully things will bounce the right way for him and he’ll have a complete season. And when that does happen, I think what you’re going to see is everybody’s going to be wearing No. 20 jerseys at that point.”
Ward wore No. 25 in his first four NFL seasons before giving up that number to veteran Richard Sherman, who signed with the 49ers in March after spending seven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
Ward started last season at free safety after starting 10 games in 2016 at cornerback. He also has served as the team’s top nickel back during his time with the 49ers. This offseason, Ward was back at cornerback while Sherman rehabbed from Achilles surgery. Ward is guaranteed his $8.526 million salary this season, as the 49ers last year picked up his fifth-year option. But where Ward plays -- where he is needed -- might not be determined for another two months.
“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,” Hafley said. “And he has 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. . . I think it’s going to play out in training camp. I really do.”