The 49ers had less than a week of practices during the second phase of the offseason program and injuries are already dominating the headlines.
Jimmie Ward, who worked with the starters at free safeties during Tuesday’s practice open to reporters, suffered a broken collarbone while diving for a ball Thursday, the team confirmed. The injury came minutes after the club announced No. 2 draft pick Nick Bosa would be sidelined for “a few weeks” due to a Grade 1 hamstring strain.
A 49ers spokesman said the expected recovery time for Ward is eight to 12 weeks, which leaves the possibility of a return for the start of training camp in late July and his availability for the season opener Sept. 8 in Tampa Bay.
Ward’s injury means the team will likely turn to third-year pro Adrian Colbert for the remainder of the offseason program. Colbert started 12 games the past two seasons after getting taken as a defensive back in the seventh round of the 2017 draft. Colbert switched to free safety during his first training camp and performed well, eventually replacing Ward after he sustained a fractured forearm midway through the season.
Ward replaced Colbert at free safety last season when Colbert’s season ended because of a high ankle sprain suffered in a blowout loss to the Rams in October.
The 49ers in March re-signed Ward to a modest one-year, $4.5 million deal despite four of his five seasons with San Francisco ending on injured reserve with fractured bones, including a broken collarbone in 2016. He fractured his forearm in consecutive seasons in 2017 and 2018. He missed half his rookie campaign in 2014 when he re-broke his foot, the same injury suffered before he was made a first-round draft pick by former general manager Trent Baalke. Ward’s second season in 2015 was the only campaign in which he didn’t miss a game.
The decision to bring back Ward, and rely on him as a key member of the defense, was controversial. The 49ers were believed to be an obvious landing spot for one of the prominent free safeties on the free agent market, such as Earl Thomas or Tyrann Mathieu. They enter the 2019 season with nearly $35 million in cap space, according to NFLPA documents, which is among the most in the NFL. Thomas signed with the Baltimore Ravens and Mathieu landed in Kansas City.
General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan passed on landing a costly veteran, instead opting to bring back Ward despite his lengthy history of broken bones.
Said Shanahan and the scouting combine in February: “I love Jimmie Ward. I really hope to have him back. We all know he struggled a little bit to stay healthy. But he’s a guy, as a person, that I’ll go to war with any day, I really trust, I really believe in. I hope it works out that we can get him back.”
Ward had always impressed the 49ers with his attitude, work ethic and production – when healthy. But he missed 29 of 80 regular season games during his first five seasons.
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman on Tuesday endorsed the decision to bring Ward back despite his inability to stay on the field. Sherman was asked if he understood why the coaching staff was so fond of Ward.
“I 100 percent do, on and off the field,” Sherman said. “He’s a great teammate, great player, great person. He’s a guy that doesn’t complain very often. If you said ‘Hey, you’re playing D-line today, he’d be like ‘All right, where do I stand?’ He’s a guy who just brings his hard hat, comes to work every day and gets the job done.”
Ward was the favorite to start at free safety in 2019 after being shuffled around the past four seasons, playing slot cornerback, outside cornerback and free safety.
“I think him being able to focus on one spot is going to do light years because he’s a tremendous player,” said Sherman. “Obviously the health has been kind of up and down but I guess the best story I got: A guy who can wear (number) 46 his senior year in high school and just not really care about it and get a scholarship, he deserves that.”
The 49ers are suddenly thin at free safety, which is one of he most important positions in the secondary. Second-year player D.J. Reed, who is expected to be behind Colbert on the depth chart, isn’t expected to be cleared for football activity until training camp after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum.