Jimmie Ward

Jimmie Ward is valuable to the 49ers despite not owning a starting job

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AP

Jimmie Ward is valuable to the 49ers despite not owning a starting job

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.

Ranking 49ers' NFL Draft needs is no easy assignment

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AP/USATSI

Ranking 49ers' NFL Draft needs is no easy assignment

Here's the latest edition of 49ers Mailbag with questions submitted to our Facebook page. . . 

What are the 49ers' biggest needs in the draft? (Steven Downs)
This is not an easy excercise. And if you ask me tomorrow, the list might be in a different order. The 49ers have nine draft picks, so here is my subjective list of the 49ers' top draft needs

1. Edge rusher
2. Cornerback
3. Offensive guard
4. Inside linebacker
5. Offensive tackle
6. Wide receiver
7. Tight end
8. Safety
9. Running back

The 49ers have capable players starting – or competing to start -- at every position. Now, they must create more competition and build the back end of their roster.

--There are not many edge rushers who can step in and make an impact, so it's possible this need goes untouched in the draft. The 49ers hope to develop the guys already on the roster – players such as Jeremiah Attaochu, Cassius Marsh, Eli Harold, Pita Taumoepenu – and get more from DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead, too.

--Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon are slated to start at cornerback. The 49ers need a lot more help at this spot because it is rare that both starting cornerbacks remain on the field together for any length of time. The 49ers are still looking to sign a veteran cornerback so that all the competition at the back end of the roster in training camp does not include undrafted rookies.

--Last year through most of training camp, coach Kyle Shanahan did not believe the 49ers had one, let alone two, starting-caliber offensive guards. Laken Tomlinson was acquired just before the start of the regular season. Now, Tomlinson, Jonathan Cooper, Joshua Garnett and, possibly, Erik Magnuson will be competing for the two spots. Plus, the 49ers could add another guard in the draft.

--The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office has not announced whether it will pursue criminal charges against Reuben Foster. With his status unresolved, the 49ers should add to the depth at inside linebacker.

--The 49ers must start looking for a succession plan at the tackle positions. Trent Brown enters the final year of his contract. The 49ers seem unconvinced about making a long-term financial commitment to him. Joe Staley will be 34 when the regular season opens, and it’s uncertain how much longer he can play at a high level.

Do you think the 49ers will trade for OBJ? Possibly for the #9 pick plus more? (James Dizon Masajo)
I do not.

The New York Giants are reportedly asking for two first-round draft picks for wide receiver Odell Beckham. That is a high of a price to pay for a team, such as the 49ers, looking to build something sustainable.

Plus, Beckham will seek a contract worth $20 million a year.

I’m sure the 49ers would do their homework to determine whether Beckham would fit into the team structure, too. If the 49ers pay that kind of money to a player, the rest of the locker room will be sent a message.

At the NFL scouting combine, Shanahan touched on his philosophy:

“Players watch who you pay. And I want to pay guys who do things the right way. And I also want to pay the best guys — not all overachievers who aren't that great. They've got to be good and they've got to do stuff the right way. When you do that, it adds to your team. But if you start paying guys who don't do that stuff, your team starts saying, ‘OK, we don't have to listen.’”

Are Tartt and Colbert the starting safeties going into camp? (Kelly Fielder)
Don’t forget about Jimmie Ward.

The 49ers plan to play Ward at cornerback throughout the nine-week offseason program while Richard Sherman is rehabbing. But when training camp begins, it seems like a reasonable expectation that Ward will be back at free safety to compete for a starting job.

Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert will get the first crack during the offseason program to line up at the safety positions.

Also, the 49ers could add someone, such as Derwin James, in the first round. On the surface, the 49ers appear set at safety this season with three starter-caliber players. But Ward and Tartt have contracts that expire at the end of the season, so there is some uncertainty beyond the upcoming season.

Thoughts on Eric Reid? (Jonathan Austin)
Eric Reid is good enough to be a starter in the NFL. But the 49ers do not consider Reid a starter on their team right now with Ward, Tartt and Colbert on the roster. Reid said the 49ers have not offered him a contract. That should not be considered a surprise.

It would be an insult to Reid if the 49ers were to offer him a one-year contract at “backup money.” And there is no reason at this stage of the offseason for Reid to accept a one-year, prove-it contract from any team.

Perhaps a team will step up – before or after the draft – with a contract offer. Perhaps, there will be an injury in training camp that will prompt a team to get in touch with Reid.

To begin with, the safety market has been soft. And there are enough questions about Reid’s overall game that likely have prevented teams from prioritizing him for a multi-year contract. Of course, it would be naïve to think Reid’s protest against racial inequality has not produced a negative impact, too.

Ward's versatility gives 49ers plenty of options in defensive backfield

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AP

Ward's versatility gives 49ers plenty of options in defensive backfield

ORLANDO, Fla. – When defensive back Jimmie Ward remained on the 49ers’ roster on the first day of the new league year earlier this month, his $8.5 million salary became fully guaranteed.

His status on the team is certain. Where he ultimately lines up is not.

The 49ers will use four weeks of practices in May and June to determine where Ward will line up when the club reports back this summer for training camp, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings.

“We know he’s capable of starting in a number of spots,” Shanahan said. “I also know he gives us depth at a number of spots

“I think Jimmie is one of the very important guys on the team because I think he’s good enough to start at five different spots, and I also think he’s good enough to be the second-best at five different spots. Jimmie is going to play for us this year. I can’t say exactly where. I say that as a compliment because he’s good at a lot of different spots.”

Adrian Colbert started six games at free safety last season as a rookie. He will open the offseason with the first unit, with Jaquiski Tartt lining up at strong safety. Ahkello Witherspoon will start at one cornerback position. Ward will handle the duties on the other side, taking the spot Richard Sherman is expected to fill during the regular season. Sherman is not expected to participate in the offseason program as he returns from separate surgeries to repair a torn Achilles and remove bone spurs.

Ward has played all 16 games just once in his first four seasons after the 49ers selected him in the first round of the 2014 draft. His durability has been a concern.

“When you break your forearm playing football, it’s hard for me to say you’re injury-prone,” Shanahan said. “He plays physical. That’s what he did last year. I love how the guy plays, the way he played safety for us last year, it was fun to watch. He plays the exact way we want a guy to play.

“If he can put a full year together and stay healthy, everybody will appreciate the kind of player he is.”

After the offseason program, Shanahan said the 49ers will reconsider their lineup in the defensive backfield with the additions of Sherman and any rookies, as well as figuring out at which position Ward best serves the team.