Jimmie Ward’s versatility could unlock 49ers’ wild card, raise defense’s ceiling

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

We may only be a week into NFL training camp, but the 49ers have already managed to exhaust a word: “versatility.”

If anything is clear through the muddiness that is this truly bizarre offseason, and soon-to-be bizarre season, it’s that the 49ers have prioritized this versatility, finding players who are positionally and athletically versatile.

Kyle Juszczyk, on Tuesday: “I think versatility is really the name of the game and Kyle [Shanahan]’s offense. That’s always kind of been the theme here is everybody has to know every skill position you got to be interchangeable.”

Mike McGlinchey, on Monday: “Versatility is going to be absolutely huge. It’s gonna make or break guys having jobs and make or break situations to fill our roster.”

Arik Armstead, on Monday: “I do a lot of self-scouting, definitely want to work on my get off, get off the ball better, rushing better at defensive end and combining that with seeing the rush well from the inside as well, so I’m just becoming a better all-around player.”

The priority to acquire positionally flexible players was clear on offense. Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle remain mainstays as players who can operate as fullbacks, tight ends, or receivers. Deebo Samuel played more than his fair share of running back, though mostly on end arounds.

Jalen Hurd, sidelined with a stress reaction in his back his rookie year, is a 6’5″, 250 pound wide receiver who started two fights last offseason due to his aggressive blocking, and caught a pair of touchdowns in his only preseason game. He was a running back for most of his college career, and probably fits best as a tight end.

Charlie Woerner is the ideal H-back, playing as a blocker from the backfield for most of his career at Georgia, but flashing raw athleticism en route to a fifth-round draft selection, a la George Kittle.

Brandon Aiyuk, like Samuel, is extraordinarily quick and physical, with a massive wingspan and the ability to return punts and kicks.

Jordan Reed, if healthy, possesses wide receiver athleticism and yards after catch potential at the tight end position.

On the line, Daniel Brunskill is competing at right guard with veteran Tom Compton, but can comfortably back up any line position for the 49ers. Colton McKivitz is someone the 49ers hope to be Brunskill 2.0, or at least another flexible backup option.

And there’s still Justin Skule as a backup tackle and Ben Garland as a competent backup center. Three young, promising backups and one reliable backup veteran, and that’s after Shon Coleman opted out of the season due to coronavirus concerns.

Defensively, there’s not as much clarity in positional flexibility, nor is there as much need for it in front of the secondary. Arik Armstead is the most positionally flexible player on the team, jumping to base end on most traditional downs, while Solomon Thomas is more of an interior player at this point in his career. Even after DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day’s departures, there’s a glut of young talent on the interior.

But the most intriguing, positionally flexible part of this defense is at safety. Jaquiski Tartt, at strong, has the physicality to slot inside as a quasi-box linebacker, or play single high.

As has been well-documented, Jimmie Ward has played just about every secondary position in his career, from free safety to corner, to nickel, as well as in the box. In the Super Bowl, he played a healthy dose of snaps in man-to-man coverage, which brings us to today.

Asked about that versatility — a word which may have to be deemed off-limits at some point this season — on Tuesday, Ward made it clear he’s still a safety, still wants to be a safety, and had conversations with Shanahan, John Lynch and the rest of the coaching staff about remaining a safety.

“Hopefully I stay at safety,” Ward said. “That’s the game plan unless I hear otherwise. But as of right now, I feel like that’s what we’ve talked about. I’ve talked to my coaches, I’ve talked to John, talked to Kyle, safety is the move.”

Of course, that’s as a base safety. Ward, understandably, wasn’t speaking to the specific defensive sets the 49ers might elect to use to mix up their coverages. Asked about potentially having more man-to-man responsibilities, as he did in the Super Bowl, Ward smiled, hinting that he might not just be sitting in that deep third of the field.

“I just feel like if I tell you more details about that I’m kind of giving away the game plan,” Ward said. “I don’t want other teams to hear how they’re gonna use me. I don’t know but it’s gonna be interesting, just make sure you watch that first game because I could be anywhere. Could be playing safety, could be man coverage, could be blitzing, could be playing zone. Who knows? You know, we’ll see first game… Good question.”

That answer was a quiet reminder of the fact that the 49ers spent a third-round draft pick on Tarvarius Moore two years ago, and he started the first three games of the season while Ward worked back from a finger fracture. When Ward did win the job back, Moore grew into a sort of specialty player late in the season.

His role was to step in on dime packages, used sparingly, at most, in the regular season. Moore had an outsized impact on those limited downs, and as an effective gunner on special teams.

In his five Super Bowl snaps on defense, he had one pass interference (a one-on-one against Travis Kelce in the end zone on third down), one interception (on a third down at the 49ers’ 23-yard line), and one pass breakup (on a third down at the 49ers’ 13-yard line).

Moore is in year three under Robert Saleh, but only year two as a safety after playing corner his rookie season. In all, the 49ers have zero new starters on defense, aside from Javon Kinlaw, or whoever starts initially in place of DeForest Buckner. That’s a myriad supply of continuity, something Ward said would allow for mixing up defensive sets.

“It helps us a lot,” Ward said. “Since we’ve been back I just feel like I’ve been working on chemistry and all our defensive checks and I just feel like it’s gonna play a big role in this upcoming season.”

With that continuity, you might see more dime sets from the 49ers, with Ward pressing up at the line of scrimmage, and Moore dropping into coverage, or vice versa. Moore’s flashed his athleticism and instincts, with those limited snap counts helping to maximize his impact.

The upside of Ward’s flexibility, outside of the obvious, in that he can play multiple positions, is that it will allow the 49ers to get three dynamic, rangey safeties on the field at the same time. When the 49ers got tricky with their sets, like rushing K’Waun Williams or Ward off the edge, there was often an immediate benefit.

Williams had a staggering, team-leading four forced fumbles last year, along with a sack and two interceptions. His 51 combined tackles ranked seventh on the roster.

Moore, maybe the fastest player in the secondary, could excel in those disguised blitzes and in coverage, as offenses try to figure out which safety is actually playing as a safety each down. The beauty of the 49ers’ continuity and safety versatility is that they can hide their schemes and use the expectations of offenses for traditional 4-3, Cover-3 or Cover-4 sets against them. Moore, ironically, thanks to Ward’s jack-of-all-trades abilities, could be the key to unlocking that potential.




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