Niners Live believes FS Jimmie Ward will play at a Pro Bowl level in 2017 with him returning to his natural position at free Safety.
At the start of the offseason, Niners Live wrote an article stating Ward should be given a crack at the starting free safety position. This puts him in the best position to take advantage of his talents and make the biggest impact on the defense.
Ward, 5’11 and 192 lbs., has proven to be a very versatile defender since being drafted in the first round, 30th, of the 2014 draft. He has started games at nickel back, cornerback and also served as the reserve free safety. In college at Northern Illinois, he played free and strong safety. He excelled at reading and reacting to plays; diagnosing them quickly and arriving at the ball violently.
On the field Ward plays instinctively. The self-proclaimed film junkie also takes his mental preparation very seriously and hates making mental errors. These skillsets are quintessential for the single high free safety role in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3 defense. A la Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks.
The 49ers exercised the fifth-year option of Ward’s rookie contract. New GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were intrigued by his play and skill set. After hiring Saleh and deciding on what base defense to run, 3-4 or 4-3, the coaching staff decided to move Ward to free safety.
“That’s been a topic of great conversation. We think he’s a good scheme fit for what we’re doing at the safety position. But you don’t know that until you put him there. It’s projecting. We think his traits (and) his skills translate very well to that position. It’s such an instinct position that we’re excited to have him give it a go,” said Lynch ( 49ers.com).
Shanahan shared his thoughts on Ward and his tackling skills after observing him in OTA practices.
“Jimmie, from what I’ve seen of his college tape and how he’s played nickel, how he’s played corner, he’s not a guy I’m too worried about tackling. So, I’m looking forward to it,” stated Shanahan (49ers.com).
Niners Live is basing our prediction on three factors:
- An improved front seven and pass rush as recently discussed in; Don’t Sleep on Arik Armstead Taking Over as the “LEO, Pass-Rusher” and Looking at Aaron Lynch’s Role within DC Robert Saleh’s Defense
- Ward playing a position that perfectly suits his style of play
- Staying healthy for an entire season
The improved pass rush allows the secondary to cover receivers for shorter periods of time and brake on balls that are badly thrown because either the quarterback was hit, or his timing was thrown off.
Ward’s first career interception is a prime example of why he can be a Pro Bowl player. Ward recognized a play based on a formation and broke on the ball with added help from fellow teammate Navorro Bowman who called out the play by way of a defensive audible. Note: Bowman also celebrated his 29th birthday recently. What the fan in me and the analyst likes to see is that Ward knew where the ball was going, broke on it and took it to the house. At free safety he will be in position to break on more balls because he will be able to read the plays and the quarterback’s eyes from a better vantage point.
In closing: If Ward plays the entire season he will make the Pro Bowl because; the move to free safety will maximize his talents which will lead to more tackles/big hits, but more importantly, pass breakups, forced fumbles and interceptions for him to take advantage of. The aggressive style of defense the 49ers will be playing in 2017 will also give Ward many opportunities to make game changing plays. This is the season 49er fans see the ball hawk side of Ward’s game unleashed and on the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster.
As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.
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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author Jimi Payne Staff Writer at Niners live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.