Over a three-game stretch near the end of the 2015 season, 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward was ranked the NFL’s top cornerback by the analytics website Pro Football Focus.
It certainly was an interesting twist given that Ward was billed as a hybrid safety-cornerback when he was taken by the 49ers with the 30th overall pick of the 2014 draft. At the time, he was viewed as more of a slot corner.
But in a three-game stretch in December, Ward was essentially a shut-down corner while also returning an interception for a score and playing well against the run.
“I pride myself on getting better each game,” he told reporters at the time.
It was a big turnaround for Ward, who was sidelined for a good chunk of his rookie season because of broken bone in his foot.
Now Ward apparently is catching the eyes of new head coach Chip Kelly and his coaching staff.
Ward was a first-team starter at corner when the Niners opened organized team activities (OTAs) last week.
“The former first-round draft pick spent his first two season entering the game as a nickel cornerback,” wrote the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers. “On Tuesday (Day 1 of OTAs), at least, he was a starting, outside cornerback who then moved inside to nickel cornerback on obvious passing downs. Tramaine Brock was the other first-team cornerback. Dontae Johnson played on the outside on nickel downs.”
Certainly, there will be intense competition to win roles at corner this spring and summer. Kenneth Acker figured to be the No. 1 candidate to start opposite Brock going into this spring, and Keith Reaser, Marcus Cromartie and three corners taken in the recent draft – Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson and Prince Charles Iworah – will get long looks.
But it appears the new coaching staff likes what it sees from Ward.
“I’m a versatile player,” Ward said. “I was drafted as a DB, so really I’m just showing how valuable I am as a player.”
He said OTAs and the upcoming full-squad minicamp will give coaches a chance to see what he can do in spots all over the secondary.
“The more you can do, the better off you are,” he told the media. “Basically I’m getting reps everywhere, but I’m working more with the corners, with the footwork, to get me right.”
He says he really doesn’t care where he plays, whether it’s safety, cornerback or nickel corner.
“As long as I’m on the field, I’m good,” he said.