San Francisco 49ers

Safety, corner, nickel? Draft will help determine Jimmie Ward's role

Jimmie Ward is heading to injured reserve for the third time in four seasons.
Jimmie Ward is heading to injured reserve for the third time in four seasons. AP

Jimmie Ward, who is being paid like a cornerback in 2018, will get a chance to play the position during the offseason, general manager John Lynch said Monday.

Ward was the 49ers' starting free safety last season and at multiple points last year team officials said they were leery of constantly moving him to different spots, which had been the case since San Francisco drafted him in the first round in 2014.

“… I think if you ask Jimmie himself or most coaches who study him, we truly believe Jimmie is made to be a free safety," coach Kyle Shanahan said in October. "We think he can play at an extremely high level there. He has got the ability to play corner, too. Sometimes that can be tough because if you're struggling at spots or you do have injuries, you always have him to move around. Is that the best thing for Jimmie in the long term? Is it the best thing for us in the long term? We don't think that, so that's why we're trying to keep him there at middle third safety because we think he has a chance to be a pretty good player for a long time there, and I want him to continue to grow and get better there."

At the owners meeting in Orlando, Fla., on Monday, however, Lynch told the team website that Ward also would get a chance this spring at cornerback, which he did to some acclaim when he was the starter there for most of the 2016 season.

“Jimmie Ward has played some outside corner in his career,” he said. “We’re going to experiment with that this offseason and see if that’s viable.”

What changed between Shanahan's and Lynch's statements?

For one, cornerback remains a position of need for San Francisco.

The would-be starters at outside cornerback are Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, with Greg Mabin as the top backup. Sherman, however, is coming back from a torn Achilles, and while he is on track for a full recovery it won't be known until later this year how close he is to returning to his previous, Pro Bowl form.

The team also is considering signing one of the following free-agent cornerbacks: Jaylen Watkins or Delvin Breaux.

At free safety, meanwhile, both Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert filled in well after Ward suffered a broken forearm last year and went on injured reserve.

The draft likely will play a big role in determining who plays where in the 49ers' secondary.

If the 49ers drafted a tall cornerback, like Iowa's Josh Jackson, early in the draft, Ward likely would remain at safety. If they took Florida State safety Derwin James, however, a move to cornerback might be most useful.

A third possible draft pick, Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick, would be more of a wild card because, like Ward, he has the ability to play multiple spots in the secondary.

Ward will earn $8.526 million this season, the fifth-highest salary on the team. That's the price of the so-called fifth-year option on his rookie deal, one that is based on him playing cornerback, not safety, in 2016.

“We think Jimmie Ward is a really good football player," Lynch said earlier this month. "We think his versatility is what allows us to be comfortable with that (salary). Jimmie’s a guy who can play safety. We saw that. He can play outside corner. He can also play the nickel. I think because of that, he becomes very valuable."