KANSAS CITY, Mo. – While all eyes were on 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, there was a guy named Jimmie who made a successful return, too.
Defensive back Jimmie Ward, out since May 23 due to a fractured collarbone, started at free safety for the 49ers on Saturday night and also played nickel back in the 49ers’ 27-17 preseason victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, highlighted by Garoppolo's impressive return to the stadium where he sustained a season-ending ACL tear in Week 3 of last season.
Ward played 25 snaps on offense and saw action on two plays on special teams.
“Jimmie is a football player,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It doesn’t matter whether he’s hurt or how long he’s been out, if you allow him to go, he’s going. He’s been that way in practice all week. I know we threw him out there (Saturday), and he was able to play both nickel and free safety, and from what I saw, he played pretty well.”
Ward made three tackles and had good pass coverage down the field on a play in which Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman was penalized for offensive pass interference. Ward is in competition with Tarvarius Moore for the starting job at free safety.
“The good thing about Jimmie, and it has also been tough for him throughout his whole career, is sometimes he is the best or second-best player at every single position depending on what personnel is out there on offense,” Shanahan said. “You have an option to put him out there in a lot of places.”
Ward said the most difficult part about returning to action was his conditioning. He had the shield removed from his facemask and at one point took out his mouthpiece to allow him to breathe more freely.
Ward continued to take part in meetings while he recovered from his latest injury. He has also been participating in walkthroughs for several weeks. His knowledge of the system is his biggest advantage over Moore.
“I feel like it helps to know the whole defense because I’m in so many different parts,” Ward said. “Our base defense is cover 3, so I’m learning really what the linebackers do and sometimes what the D-end does, and everything with all the fits. So it works out perfectly when I’m moving around.”
Ward has missed 29 games in his five-year career due to a variety of injuries. His past two seasons ended due to broken forearms. But Ward said remaining positive has not been difficult for him because he shields himself from fans who often complain about or mock his injuries.
“I don’t get on social media,” he said. “That’s where all of the negative comments come from, so I didn’t get on social media and I listen to my loved ones. They always give me positive feedback.”
Ward played every snap while the 49ers' first-team defense was on the field. Moore entered the game in nickel situations at free safety with Ward moving to nickel back. The team’s primarily nickel back is K’Waun Williams, who is recovering from a knee procedure.
“He’s a ballhawk and that’s why he’s on the field because he’s one of our best 11,” Ward said of Moore. “So that’s why I’m playing nickel. They’re trying to get their best 11 on the field.”
When asked if he considers himself one of the 49ers’ best 11, Ward answered, “I don’t know, but I was on the field.”