49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will take the week of practice to decide who will replace Adrian Colbert as the starting free safety for Sunday’s road game against the Arizona Cardinals.
It appears the competition will be between rookie D.J. Reed Jr. and Jimmie Ward, who was back on the practice field Wednesday after missing the last game against the Los Angeles Rams with a hamstring injury. Colbert was placed on injured reserve Monday with a right high ankle sprain.
Ward was moved to cornerback during the offseason program after playing free safety in 2017. Shanahan said “I can’t tell you” when asked Wednesday whether Ward will practice at cornerback or get reps in place of Colbert.
Shanahan reiterated that Reed will be the first player to get practice time at free safety after replacing Colbert in the second half of the Rams game. Colbert was carted off the field.
Reed, a 2018 fifth-round draft pick from Kansas State, has been the team’s primary backup at free safety while Ward has worked predominately behind Richard Sherman at cornerback. Ward earned the starting job two weeks ago against the Green Bay Packers opposite Sherman before departing in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury.
Ward, the 30th overall pick in 2014, is one of the 49ers’ highest-paid defensive players this season. He’s making roughly $8.5 million on his fifth-year option despite coming into the season without a starting job locked up.
San Francisco decided to guarantee his salary in March because of his versatility. The team believes he can play all five spots in the secondary, including free safety, which could be the case Sunday in Arizona against the league’s bottom-ranked offense.
“We think he makes us better because when he’s out there he’s a very good player and he is incredibly versatile,” general manager John Lynch told The Bee in August. “So he can help your (53-man roster) in that he can play corner, he could play free safety for sure. He could play nickel and we think we could play strong safety. So he’s a valuable cog to have. His injury history, is it an issue? We’ll see. It’s proven to be in his career.”
Ward has missed two games this season due to hamstring and quad injuries. He also dealt with ankle issues this summer. His 2017 season ended seven games in because he fractured a forearm after playing well at free safety. His experience there could allow him to make a smooth transition for Sunday’s game.
Shanahan was asked what he looks for from players, like Ward, who could be switching positions mid season.
“Just how comfortable they are there,” he said. “... It’s more of a feel back in the middle of the field. We don’t run a ton of coverages, especially for the middle-third safety. So, it’s about where your eyes are, tracking, running, making sure you’re healthy enough to do it. And also, that you’re comfortable back there. A lot of guys who go from corner to safety, they’ve got to get adjusted to the hitting part because it’s just a little bit different, the physicality of it and stuff.
“That’s not an issue for Jimmie at all. He has no problem with that type of stuff. So, it’s just giving him a few reps back at the middle of the field and something that he is used to. He got a number of (reps) last year. We’d love to have a few weeks to do it if we did that, but you don’t get off weeks.”
The 49ers like Reed for his physicality and feistiness. He’s one of the few rookies that’s been ask to play multiple positions in the secondary. He’s been the primary backup as the slot corner behind K’Waun Williams in addition to backing up Colbert.
Reed played exclusively as an outside cornerback in college, which has forced him to spend extra time each week preparing to play multiple positions.
“It’s been more mental than anything, because it’s been the first time I’ve ever done that,” Reed said. “Just my preparation has to be longer than everybody else’s.”