When Jimmie Ward moved from safety to cornerback in May, it was considered an experiment. Now he’s the team’s top cornerback, coach Chip Kelly said Wednesday.
“He’s our best corner and our best nickel,” Kelly said. “The ability to cover man to man in this league is first and foremost. If you ask anybody, ‘What do you want when you’re looking at the secondary?’ Everybody wants a corner before they want a safety, and we felt that that’s Jimmie’s best position. So we could move him to safety, but we think we’d really be shortchanged out at the corner spot.”
Ward’s best position has been debated for years.
He played safety in high school – 49ers teammate Jaquiski Tartt played opposite him – because that was the most crucial spot in the team’s system. His Northern Illinois coaches initially wanted to use him at cornerback, but injuries at safety forced him into that position.
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After the 49ers used a first-round pick on Ward in 2014, they used him as a nickel cornerback.
Kelly said that versatility gives him the edge over the team’s other starting cornerback, Tramaine Brock.
“Don’t diminish anything that Brock’s done, but I think Jimmie is the one guy that plays all over the place,” Kelly said. “He plays in the slot. He can play nickel. He blitzes from that position. Can match up with the top receivers on the outside. He’s a rare combination.”
Ward suffered a concussion Sunday and has not practiced this week. If he can’t play against the Dolphins, Rashard Robinson will start in his place.
Tartt, meanwhile, will take over for injured Eric Reid at safety. The next two players at the position are Dontae Johnson and Marcus Cromartie. Vinnie Sunseri, who was elevated from the practice squad Tuesday, is expected to take on some of Tartt’s special-teams duties.
Reid in ’17? – Reid, who had season-ending surgery Tuesday, is to earn $5.7 million next season. When asked if he did enough to earn that salary, Kelly said yes, because Reid has been such a versatile player in the defense.
“I think Eric’s had a really good year,” Kelly said. “I don’t grade him on contracts or what he’s been offered or options or all that other stuff – that’s above me. But I think for what we’re doing defensively and the scheme we run, I think he’s had a really good year. It’s a big blow to us to not have him for these last couple games this season.”
Et cetera – Kelly said linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who suffered an Achilles’ tendon tear Oct. 2, is off crutches but still in a walking boot. He’s been rehabilitating daily at the 49ers facility.
▪ Eli Harold returned to practice but was not moving well due to a nagging toe injury. Both he and fellow outside linebacker Aaron Lynch (high-ankle sprain) were not at full speed during Wednesday’s session. Kelly said the 49ers hope Harold’s issue improves as the week goes on.
▪ Defensive lineman Quinton Dial (knee, neck) returned to practice wearing a blue, no-contact jersey. Receiver Torrey Smith (shoulder) also was in a blue jersey. Both are expected to play Sunday in Miami.