49ers: Adrian Colbert vs Jimmie Ward; Who starts at Free Safety?

Recently, Niners Live stirred up some controversy and started the conversation, when we asked: Will Safety Jimmie Ward ever Shake his Injury Prone Reputation? And now I’m asking the question: Adrian Colbert vs. Jimmie Ward; Who starts at Free Safety?


There’s nothing wrong with a little competition. In fact, competition can breed success for a football team and personal and professional development for a player. With that, being said, let’s look at Colbert versus Ward at a glance from an objective, lens, of course. 

The Challenger “Jimmie Ward”

Why is Ward the Challenger? He lost his starting spot to a rookie named, “Adrian Colbert” due to injury and Colbert played well in his absence. Ward’s career stats at a glance: 158 total tackles combined, two sacks, one forced fumble, 21 passes defended and two interceptions (one being returned for a touchdown). Over Ward’s four year career he’s missed 22 of the possible 64 games available in the regular season due to a full laundry list of injuries (injury history courtesy of FoxSports.com). 

A case could be made that Ward is the most versatile/athletic and fastest defensive back on the 49ers roster (4.47- and 4.48-second 40 times at NIU pro day) with the ability/range to get from one side of the field, to the other, in a hurry. Which has General Manager John Lynch so high on Ward (via NBC’S Matt Maiocco). 

Ward has shown flashes of his potential in spurts over his career. During a span from 2014-16, he ranked second among all cornerbacks with a tackling efficiency of 25.0. Recapping the backend of 2015, Ward rated out as the best corner in the NFL, earning an overall grade 77.7, which ranked 38th, and a 74.5 in 2016, which ranked 46th out of 110 qualifiers.

Important to note: Ward has played cornerback, nickel back and both safety positions since being drafted by the 49ers. Why Lynch likes his versatility and why the 49ers made his 2018 contract of 8.5 million fully guaranteed.  

In 2017, it was an entirely different story (46.9 overall PFF grade) outside of the fractured forearm Ward suffered that caused his season to end prematurely, production wise Ward left much to be desired; 32 tackles, one fumble recovery, one pass defended, no turnovers created and no sacks, in seven games played (starting six of those contests).

Potential and upside mean nothing if you’re not on the field to produce at a high impact level and productivity wise. This is a major concern regarding Ward and can’t go unnoticed nor can it be ignored.

The incumbent starter “Adrian Colbert”

He started the season as a core member of the special team’s units, but after injuries to both safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, he was forced into the starting line-up. 

Mr. Aka the “Punisher” with extreme violence; Colbert standing at 6’2 205 lbs., in his rookie season appeared in 14 games, starting six of those contests while accounting for 32 combined tackles, five passes defended, one forced fumble, no sacks, and zero interceptions. 

Colbert’s Pro Football Focus grade: 77.6 overall, coverage 80.0, run defense 60.8 with 530 total snaps played on defense in 2017. Colbert ended the season as PFF’s sixth-ranked rookie safety in 2017. He was the 23rd safety drafted. With an overall grade of 77.6, he ranked as the 46th best safety in the NFL.

Colbert’s play at free safety earned respect from the front office, coaching staff and teammates. The coaching staff voted him the Thomas Herrion Memorial Award winner, which is given to a rookie or first-year player who has taken advantage of their opportunities, turned it into a positive situation and made their dream a reality. 

Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh thinks highly of his single high safety. He believes the sky is the limit for the rookie.

“He’s relentless in his work ethic and his preparation, I love the way he hits. He’s a very physical football player. It’s very important to him. Every play, every rep, every meeting is very, very important. He’s very into it. He has something to prove for sure. His tracking angles in space when that ball does reach that second level. We call him the eraser, to erase all the issues that might happen in the run game. He has the ability to track in space which makes him a really good special team’s player. Now, the last part we’re trying to get to is mental. If he can get to that mental speed we feel like he might be able to be a pretty good safety. That’s the last part of it,” stated Saleh.

Adrian Colbert vs. Jimmie Ward; who starts at Free Safety?

One could argue that it’s Colbert’s job to lose. Ward has Lynch, a former safety himself that is his biggest supporter in his corner. If Ward can stay healthy (questionable if) this race could go down to the wire come the season opener. If Ward has any setbacks in terms of health, he has no chance of winning this battle for the starting free safety position. But here’s the curveball; if Jacquiski Tartt goes down hurt or with an injury, I can see Ward still playing at free safety and Colbert being switch over to strong safety.

Because of the versatility of both of these players and Ward especially, he has two ways he can start at free safety. But there are what if factors, that come into play, obviously. 

Head coach Kyle Shanahan and Lynch feel Ward has Pro Bowl potential (via the team’s website). It still remains to be seen if that potential will show itself on a full-time basis in 2018. Right now, Colbert has the edge over Ward to start at free safety based on momentum, ideal size for the position and his athleticism and speed for his stature.

Most importantly he’ll probably be healthier than Ward.   

Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the faithful fan and analyst from an objective/analytical lens, of course. Often imitated, but never duplicated.

All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comPro Football Focus49ers.comESPN.comNFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Content Creator, player break down specialist, Co-Editor, Sequoia Sims