When the 49ers drafted Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois in 2014, it was with the intention of making the college safety into an NFL cornerback.
At Northern Illinois, Ward, a 5-foot-11, 193-pounder, was a playmaker at strong safety who led his team in tackles and interceptions his final season while earning all-conference and third-team All-America honors.
Since coming into the NFL, Ward has played a nickel corner role but also seen action at safety and started at an outside corner spot. He’s showed enough potential at cornerback that the new 49ers coaching staff has seen him as a likely starter in 2017.
But the 49ers also could view Ward as a safety again, too.
Under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who wants to use a scheme similar to that of the Seahawks, safeties play significant and defined roles. The Seahawks have been very effective using a strong safety (Kam Chancellor) up near the line of scrimmage as a force against the run while using a smaller free safety (Earl Thomas) as a far-ranging center fielder at the back of the defense.
New 49ers general manager John Lynch says the team’s coaching staff believes Ward has the skill set that could make him a fine free safety in the new system.
“I think Jimmie is going to get his chance and that’s something we’re excited about seeing,” Lynch said this week. “I think even for great players, people have always said that’s an easy transition, if he can play corner, he certainly can play safety. It doesn’t always work like that because you see the position in a different way. We’re going to vet that, we’re going to look at it. We don’t know. I don’t think Jimmie knows, so we’ll see.”
Lynch told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee that nothing is set in stone yet as far as Ward’s role. He says they like Ward’s versatility and want to “take advantage of that” to find the best spot for him and the team.
Also, noted Barrows, the 49ers could reach for a safety in the draft. He writes the 49ers have brought in Budda Baker of the University of Washington for an interview. For the Huskies this past season, free safety Baker led all players in tackles and had two interceptions. Also, Ohio State’s Malik Hooker is considered one of the best overall players in the draft and will likely go in the first round.
Over 27 games the past two seasons, including 18 starts, Ward has performed well for the 49ers. He’s been in on 106 tackles over that span with two sacks, two interceptions and 18 passes defensed. He's certain to play a key role for the 49ers in 2017. It's just not certain what that role will be.