49ers

49ers' Jimmie Ward showing how special he can be now that he's healthy

49ers' Jimmie Ward showing how special he can be now that he's healthy

SANTA CLARA — After several seasons with a number of bad breaks (literally), Jimmie Ward has been able to show why every 49ers coaching staff he’s been with has loved him. 

After only being healthy enough to play in 31 games during his first five seasons, Ward has played in all 14 games this season. While he has gotten a bad reputation with fans for being injury-prone, watching his style of play exemplifies why some of those injuries have occurred. 

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has praised Ward since his arrival in Santa Clara. Not only does the safety have speed and coverage skills, but the hard-hitting nature of his tackling can keep wide receivers and running backs very wary. 

“Jimmie's versatility,” Saleh said, “I don't know if there's, I don't want to blur it, but there's not a lot of free safeties like him who is an exceptional cover guy along with the range he has in the middle of the field and his ability to do different things and the instinctiveness that he plays with, the physicality that he plays with.”  

Saleh, of course, is completely aware of Ward’s reputation for not being able to stay healthy. Missing 52 of the last 97 games is not an admirable record. 

“Knock on wood for him,” Saleh said. “We've always said that if he could stay healthy, people would recognize how special he is, and he's just got to continue staying the course, keep taking care of his body, keep doing the things he's doing. But, having his versatility is always an asset.

“I think it just goes with the overall philosophy on how we tackle,” Saleh continued. “Keeping your head out of the game and understanding your aiming points, and a guy like Jimmie who can move at the speed he does and to be able to target the way he does without creating penalties is special. That's what makes him unique.”

Tight end George Kittle faces Ward every day in practice and has high praise for the safety. But of course, he claims he has the upper hand on Ward. 

“I mean, Jimmie is I think one of the greatest athletes I've ever been on a team with,” Kittle said. “He’s a complete freak of nature. He's incredibly fast. He's incredibly strong. He's smart, and he's incredibly physical, too. 

“He's really an all-around player, and I think we missed a lot the last few years with him being injured. It really hurt our defense. And just the way he plays the game, too, he has so much fun doing it. He's just such a great football player, and having him out there makes our defense a lot better, and the last time we did go one-on-one, I did beat him, so it's okay.”

[RELATED: Kittle must take center stage vs. Packers]

Saleh preaches playing with extreme violence to his players but they have to be careful in not drawing a penalty flag when carrying out those orders. Coach Kyle Shanahan knows how challenging it can be for a player to find that balance, something Ward does very well.

“It's very difficult," Shanahan said. "It's very hard to have a violent hit in this league without a penalty just because of how fast it happens. It's hard to see for the refs and everyone. So, in order to do that and not get any penalties you've got to be a very skilled athlete, you've got to be fearless, you've got to be running in there at full speed not thinking about anything except where to put your shoulder pad. 

"He's done a great job of that. There's been some that have been violent where I’m just waiting for a flag. But the ref's saw it right, because you look at it on the big screen and he doesn't have a helmet-to-helmet. And he's been huge for us this year. I think everyone knows how big of a fan I am of Jimmie and it's been great that he's just been able to stay healthy this year.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 5:30 p.m.

49ers mailbag: Could co-coordinators ease Kyle Shanahan's workload?

49ers mailbag: Could co-coordinators ease Kyle Shanahan's workload?

It has been two weeks since the 49ers’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. That’s more than enough time to turn the page and look ahead.

So that’s what we’re doing -- with the help from some of our Twitter friends. Here is the first offseason edition of the 49ers Mailbag.

Kyle Shanahan is one of the best play-callers in the NFL. I don’t think there’s even a question about that. Is there? So I can’t envision any scenario in which Shanahan stops doing the thing he does best.

Shanahan certainly believes McDaniel and LaFleur are ready to call plays. McDaniel and LaFleur are, in essence, co-offensive coordinators. They are responsible for putting together the first components of the weekly game plan.

Through the first three seasons together with the 49ers, they have found a pretty good rhythm together and Shanahan finds himself placing more trust in them. What they’re doing is working.

If the 49ers have the $19 million-plus in cap room to devote to a franchise tag for Arik Armstead, then I think they could work out a long-term deal that would work for both sides.

As for the question about a tag-and-trade, I’m sure you’re thinking about how the Kansas City Chiefs tagged Dee Ford a year ago and, then, traded him to the 49ers. In that instance, the Chiefs had Frank Clark on the line, so that made sense.

In this case, I don’t think there’s anyone who plays Armstead’s position they would prefer over him. Armstead is exactly what the 49ers need: A defensive end on base downs who moves inside next to DeForest Buckner to rush the passer in nickel situations.

There is no need for the 49ers to do anything with Thomas, except work with him to continue to improve and become more valuable as a rotational player on the defensive line. The 49ers certainly will not pick up the fifth-year option on Thomas for the 2021 season. But with Thomas’ rookie contract guaranteed, there is no cap advantage in parting ways with him this year.

Regardless, Thomas should have a significant role next season. But if for whatever reason Armstead is not back, Thomas has a strong chance to be a starter.

The possibility of recouping a draft pick is part of the reason the 49ers felt compelled to make the trade in the first place. In my opinion, they would have preferred Mohamed Sanu, who was under contract through the 2020 season. But the Patriots offered the Atlanta Falcons a second-round draft pick, and the 49ers did not have a second-round pick after dealing it to Kansas City for Dee Ford.

Instead, the 49ers acquired Sanders and a fifth-round pick from Denver in return for third- and fourth-round draft picks. The 49ers do not figure to be active with veteran acquisitions on the free-agent market this offseason, so it is likely the 49ers have more losses than gains. If Sanders is a loss, the 49ers would stand a good chance of picking up a compensatory pick for the 2021 draft.

Get stronger. Work. Work. Work.

Pettis had a good offseason program a year ago, but he was not the same player when he came back for training camp. Other receivers on the team came back stronger at the opening of camp. Pettis did not. That is why Pettis struggled and fell out of favor to the point he rarely played in the second half of the season.

Pettis needs to take it up another few notches to get stronger and avoid the nagging injuries that also set him back last season. Pettis has more ability than almost anyone on the team to run some of Shanahan’s favorite routes. He will have an opportunity to prove himself in the offseason and training camp this year.

If Jalen Hurd and Pettis are both healthy, I think the answer is Hurd. The reason is because of his size and his unique skill set.

I envision Hurd being a big part of the 49ers’ two-minute offense because of his versatility. The 49ers can line him up anywhere in the formation, including running back. That puts the onus on the defense to figure out how they want to treat him. Is he a runner, wide receiver or tight end? Then, based on the defensive personnel, the 49ers can exploit those weaknesses.

[RELATED: Juice sick of Jimmy G, Shanahan criticism after Super Bowl]

The draft takes place more than a month after free agency. So the answer to this question could change, based on what the 49ers’ roster looks like at the time of the draft. But, right now, if the 49ers hold onto the No. 31 overall pick, the team can choose among the best available wide receiver, cornerback or defensive lineman.

There are two ways to look at this. But if there’s a team willing to move up to No. 31 overall, then that is the default move. It would make a lot of sense to sit out the first round of the draft to come away with multiple picks on Day 2.

But if there is someone at No. 31 with whom the organization has fallen in love, then they should take that player. The advantage of holding onto the first-round draft pick is that the 49ers would control the contract rights to the player for five years, instead of four.

49ers' Kyle Juszczyk sick of Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyle Shanahan criticism

49ers' Kyle Juszczyk sick of Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyle Shanahan criticism

Losing the Super Bowl was tough on the 49ers, to say the least. It was especially tough for the team's fullback, Kyle Juszczyk, who hated hearing the criticism of Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan, his quarterback and coach.

"Those are two guys that have absolutely nothing to prove to the rest of the guys in the locker room," Juice said Friday on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football." "You look at Jimmy, for people that are stats guys, 4,000 yards passing, better than a two-to-one, touchdown-interception ratio, 70 percent completion."

He added with that alone, you're looking at a "phenomenal quarterback."

"For whatever reason, Jimmy just gets this extra criticism, this extra heat, but I think at one point in the game he was like 19-for-22," Jusczyk said. 

"That's football, though -- you just change one or two plays in the game, and the whole dialogue changes, the whole narrative."

Juice mentioned the moment that could have put Jimmy G in the same category as Tom Brady as a Super Bowl MVP. The moment that could have led to the 49ers popping champagne in San Francisco amongst the faithful.

That could have been a game-changer.

The play in question caused wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to storm out of the media room following the Super Bowl LIV loss to the Chiefs. Garoppolo's overthrow in the fourth quarter changed everything.

[RELATED: What Juice regrets most from 49ers' Super Bowl collapse]

And they know it. Jimmy knows it. Sanders knows it. Shanahan knows it. 

"It's a shame that one or two plays can really change everyone's outlook on someone," Juszczyk said.