Jimmie Ward's position versatility has evolved into an annual debate about where the San Francisco 49ers defensive back best fits into the team's secondary. That question arose once again this week at the NFL Combine.
So is Ward a cornerback or a safety?
Ward, a safety in college at Northern Illinois, began his career at the position after the 49ers selected him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. But Ward didn't begin to see significant playing time until he moved to nickel cornerback. In 2016, Ward was moved to a starting outside corner, while still spending plenty of time covering the slot depending on the matchup.
Ward has posted 126 total tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and one pick-six during his three seasons in San Francisco.
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch – as well as defensive coordinator Robert Saleh – have already begun to discuss where their talented defensive back will play next season.
"I'm not sure yet," Shanahan said on Wednesday. "That's definitely something we've discussed, because I know he's capable of doing both. When you have a guy who's capable at both, it gives you some freedom (in free agency and the draft.)"
Lynch provided a little more clarity on Thursday.
"That's been a topic of great conversation," the GM began. "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."
Ward's versatility, while a huge asset to a defense, also presents a potential pitfall. In regards to moving a player around to different positions, it begs the question of how much is too much?
"The more a guy does, sometimes the worse he gets," Shanahan said candidly. "It all depends on the person, and it all depends on the scheme. Anytime you have a guy like that, as a coach, it gives you more options. Whatever option you choose, you need to do the best by him and the best by the team, also."
So whether San Francisco's brain trust decides that Ward is best served as a safety or a cornerback, it's fair to assume that's where Ward will stay for a bulk of the offseason program.
"I don't want to bounce him around too much, because then you don't really see anything," Shanahan said. "It takes guys time to get used to a position."
The conversations will continue to be fluid while the team adds various pieces via free agency and the draft. Once the roster is set (for the most part, anyways), Lynch and Co. will make a determination as to where to deploy Ward's chess piece.