SANTA CLARA – Jimmie Ward is a 49ers defensive back without a starting job.
He is the team’s highest-paid defensive player, which is not totally unjustifiable. That’s because he also might be the 49ers’ most-important defensive player.
A year ago, Ward was the no-questions-asked starter at free safety. He was described as “The Eraser” in the 49ers’ defense. The new scheme was based on Seattle’s system, and Ward was in the role of Earl Thomas.
This offseason, Ward is lining up at cornerback. Ward is a placeholder for Richard Sherman, who is expected to be medically cleared from Achilles surgery for the opening of training camp in late-July. Second-year player Adrian Colbert is starting at free safety during the offseason program.
Ward’s versatility makes him a valued member of the secondary because of his ability to play either of the cornerback or safety positions, as well as nickel back. Injuries among defensive backs are common across the NFL, so there seems little doubt Ward will be needed for a significant role – at some point, at some position.
“He played free safety last year in this system, so we know he can do it,” 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley said. “And we believe he can do that at a high level. Now, our main focus with him is just go out, get your feet back under yourself from being a corner like you were two years ago.”
The system has different requirements from the cornerbacks than when Ward started 10 games in 2016 under then-defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil. Ward played mostly man coverage two years ago. Ward now must execute more press coverage against all different types of wide receivers. His new focus is on perfecting the nuances of playing outside in a defense that stresses cover-3 principles.
“I really respect Jimmie so much,” Hafley said. “I think the world of him as a person, as a football player. I’ve been here. I’ve seen him play corner. I’ve seen him play free safety. I’ve seen him be injured, I’ve seen him battle back. I’m just excited for the guy to go out and practice every day, get more comfortable with things, see what he can do (this) year.”
Ward, who will make $8.526 million this season on the fifth-year option, is getting tested plenty during organized team activities. During practice Wednesday he showed he both has some work. He also demonstrated he has a lot of promise in his new role.
Kendrick Bourne beat Ward deep on a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo, and tight end Garrett Celek made a catch on a perfect Garoppolo throw to the back right corner of the end zone. Ward defended Garoppolo’s deep incomplete pass for Marquise Goodwin, and he broke up a Garoppolo pass for Pierre Garçon at the back line of the end zone.
Here are other observations and notes from 49ers’ practice:
--Garoppolo was sharp during the team’s red-zone sessions. Garoppolo hit seven consecutive passes in a 7-on-7 drill with six touchdowns on passes to Celek (twice), Raheem Mostert, George Kittle, Aaron Burbridge and Matt Breida. During an 11-on-11 red zone period, Garoppolo tossed scoring passes of 12 and 4 yards to Bourne and Celek, respectively.
-Linebacker Reuben Foster is being worked back into the action slowly as he joined the team’s offseason program last week after a judge dismissed two felony domestic violence charges. Foster missed the first 5 ½ weeks of conditioning that led into organized team activities.
“He’s in great shape,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “But, just like all the other guys, they’ve had a due process of phase one, phase two, going through the different phases of the offseason. So, we’re just giving him a chance to get back into it. Don’t rush him. There’s no need. Hopefully we can get him back to practicing soon.”
--Nose tackle Sheldon Day intercepted a C.J. Beathard pass that bounced off the helmet of Victor Bolden. Day batted down another Beathard pass at the line of scrimmage.
--Running back Jerick McKinnon participated in individual drills but was held out of offense vs. defense practice. Breida took the reps with the first team. Joe Williams had a rough day with a catchable pass that deflected off his hands and losing his footing on an outside run. Undrafted rookie Jeff Wilson caught a short TD pass from Nick Mullens at the end of practice.
--Dante Pettis, Richie James, D.J. Reed and Bolden handled the punts. Trent Taylor is being held out of practices due to a bothersome back.
--The 49ers’ offensive line consists of left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Laken Tomlinson, center Weston Richburg and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. On Wednesday, Mike Person lined up with the first unit at right guard. Person and Joshua Garnett have been rotating with the starters while Jonathan Cooper rehabs from knee surgery. Cooper is expected to be ready for the opening of training camp.