Throughout training camp and the first two exhibition games, Tarvarius Moore has been the 49ers’ No. 1 free safety.
But with just 18 days remaining before the regular-season opener against the Bucs in Tampa Bay on Sept. 8, Moore isn’t a lock to start. The second-year converted cornerback has made terrific progress in his new role during this camp, but veteran Jimmie Ward could still overtake him and earn the starting job.
Ward, the team’s first-round pick in 2014, played just half of 2018 because of an injury, then suffered a fractured collarbone in spring workouts. Moore has taken advantage of his absence to show the 49ers his potential.
But defensive coordinator Robert Saleh says Ward, who returned to practice two weeks ago, can still make his case to start over the next two weeks.
“For Jimmie, it’s no different than as if it was the first day of camp,” Saleh told Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee this week. “He’s got to show that he’s ready for action. Not saying that he needs to do it now, but over the next couple of weeks he just has to continue to accelerate the way we know he will. We think very highly of Jimmie, so it’ll be good to see him out there over the next couple of weeks.”
The Niners see him as perfect for the free safety slot in their defense. Ward has played cornerback and both safety positions in his 49ers career, but coaches see his range, tackling and pass coverage skills as ideal at free safety.
The trouble for Ward has been injuries. In only one season (2015) has he played a full schedule. Over the past three seasons he’s started only 23 of 48 games.
When Ward was finally cleared to return to 49ers practices recently, head coach Kyle Shanahan said the team would take a cautious approach and limit his contact.
“We know Jimmie is going to hit every single second he has a chance to, so we’ve got to protect him from himself a little bit,” said Shanahan.
Ward is confident he can do the job.
“Really, just stay healthy, that’s my only concern,” Ward said this week. “… Then when I get back out there on the field, everything else is going to take care of itself.”
The 49ers return to exhibition action Saturday in Kansas City against the Chiefs.