Jimmie Ward

Is 49ers' biggest roster hole safety depth going into 2020 NFL season?

Is 49ers' biggest roster hole safety depth going into 2020 NFL season?

The 49ers don't have many holes on their roster after falling short in Super Bowl LIV. They replaced two key departures -- DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders -- by adding Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Every great team has a weakness, though. So, what's San Francisco's soft spot? ESPN's Football Outsiders believes it's the 49ers' possible lack of safety depth.

Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt round out the 49ers' starting safeties, but they aren't exactly ballhawks. The 49ers were the only team in the NFL last season whose safeties failed to record an interception, and they were in the bottom five in tackles at the position, ESPN notes. 

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Ward only has two interceptions through six seasons while Tartt has three in five years. Behind them are Tarvarius Moore and Marcell Harris, neither which are proven players quite yet. 

And then there are the health concerns. Ward has started 10 games or more just twice in his career, and Tartt has done so once. After playing 16 games last season -- including the playoffs -- Ward is focused on ways to keep his body healthy

“I’m trying to avoid soft-tissue injuries,” Ward recently told Bay Area reporters. “Breaking bones, and this and that, hopefully, I stay healthy, but that can happen. But soft-tissue injuries, I can avoid that by yoga and just working out and putting the right things in my body.”

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The 49ers also signed an intriguing undrafted free agent in former Alabama safety Jared Mayden. As a senior last season, Mayden led the Crimson Tide with four interceptions while playing all around the field.

Safety very well might be the 49ers' weak link, however, it's clear the 49ers shouldn't have too much to worry about. The top-four players at the position have experience over the last few seasons, and perhaps the front office found a hidden gem after the draft.

Jimmie Ward thinks 49ers 'still loaded' even without DeForest Buckner

Jimmie Ward thinks 49ers 'still loaded' even without DeForest Buckner

The 49ers traded away arguably their best defensive player at the opening of the new league year.

Dealing defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts was a big blow. But it was also a move the 49ers' front office deemed necessary for the roster's short- and long-term health.

After all, the 49ers received the No. 13 overall pick from the Colts in exchange for Buckner. And the cap dollars saved went a long way toward them re-signing defensive lineman Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward.

Ward is back on a three-year, $28.5 million contract. He had no desire to go anywhere else. And when the 49ers came through with a more-than-competitive offer, Ward gladly accepted because of his faith in general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan to enact a plan for another Super Bowl run.

“I feel like DeFo is a tough loss,” Ward said. “He’s a big part of that defense last year. I feel like Kyle and John did a great job in the draft by drafting Buck’s replacement. Nobody is like Buck. We have to see how this pans out.

“But, at the same time, I feel like we’re still loaded on the defensive front. I feel like we’ll be just fine, but it’s just a bunch of talking right now. You’ll see Game 1.”

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The 49ers traded back one spot and selected South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw with the No. 14 overall pick in last month's draft. The pick the 49ers acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in that trade was then used to move up six spots to No. 25 in order to draft Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

A lot will be expected of the newcomers, for sure. But Ward also has bigger hopes for himself. He believes he should make a greater impact in 2020 with more of a featured role in the team’s defensive backfield.

"Just by me playing 16 games last year, that got me so much better," Ward said. "On top of that, I feel like I can get a lot more turnovers, the more I get comfortable with it.”

[RELATED: Williams should upgrade 49ers' already-great rushing attack]

Ward broke up eight passes in 13 regular-season games and was a big reason the 49ers’ had the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the league. But Ward did not force a turnover with an interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery.

He said he believes from the early stages of the team's virtual offseason program that new defensive backs coach Tony Oden will place more emphasis on enabling Ward to become more of a game-changer.

“I like some of his techniques and just some of the stuff that we've been talking about, how I can get more involved instead of just sitting back there in the post or just covering a guy man-to-man,” Ward said. “They're actually going to get me more involved in the defense."

49ers' Jimmie Ward explains error on Chiefs' Super Bowl third-and-15

49ers' Jimmie Ward explains error on Chiefs' Super Bowl third-and-15

Jimmie Ward needed some time before he could turn on the tape of the 49ers' collapse in Super Bowl LIV. He finally got around to it a few weeks ago, and has now watched it more times than he can count.

So, what's his main takeaway?

"How things played out, it was just tough," Ward said Thursday on KNBR's "Murph & Mac Show." "I just feel like we could have been better on offense and defense, and you've just still got to give the (Kansas City) Chiefs credit. They were the better team on that Sunday."

The Chiefs ultimately ended up on top, but the 49ers were in control for a larger portion of the game. Leading by 10 points in the fourth quarter, the tide began to turn on a critical third-and-15 conversion by Kansas City. The Chiefs never looked back from there.

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Ward wishes he could have that third down back.

"I wish I could have stayed more square," he explained. "I would say that. How I practiced it, how we -- it's a certain play. It's a route that they love doing. ... They ended up getting us in the right call because we were in Cover 3 during that play. I don't know if they were expecting us to be in Cover 3 or what, but yeah, we probably could have made another call. That probably would have helped us out, but at the same time, it probably could have played out the same way."

"I have no idea how that would happen," Ward continued, "but regarding the situation, if I had stayed square, it wouldn't have even been a play."

Ironically, Ward wasn't the only player on the field having trouble staying square on that play. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was able to buy plenty of time to deliver that 44-yard completion to Tyreek Hill, but only because Kansas City left tackle Eric Fischer wrapped both arms around Nick Bosa's bellybutton after the Defensive Rookie of the Year had beaten him on the play and was closing in for a sack.

Officials make the obvious call, and there's no completion to speak of, either.

[RELATED: Way-too-early 2020 NFL predictions: Will 49ers finish job?]

Ward was right.

It's still too soon.