The San Francisco 49ers made a splash at the onset of the new league year. They dished out a pair of big contracts to Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford. The 49ers made several more subtle moves, including the additions of Jason Verrett, Tevin Coleman and Jordan Matthews.
Most of the fan reaction has been net positive, but there remains a contingent of folks on social media who are puzzled by San Francisco's moves (or lack thereof) at free safety. Landon Collins and Earl Thomas highlighted a deep crop of free agents at the position who signed elsewhere. Former Kansas City Chiefs star Eric Berry remains available. Instead of opening up their wallets for one of those high-profile names, the 49ers opted to bring back a pair of defensive backs from last year's roster.
Jimmie Ward and Antone Exum will remain in San Francisco in 2019 on one-year deals. The former, given that he was the team's first-round pick in 2014, is a lightning rod among 49ers fans. It's understandable, given Ward's injury history (he hasn't played 10 games in a season since 2016), but the fact remains that every coach loves him. This has been the case over the course of four different coaching regimes.
It's telling that John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan and Co. still feel so strongly about the veteran defensive back. They've overhauled nearly the entire roster since their arrival in 2017. And yet, Ward remains a coveted piece in San Francisco.
"We like our free safety group. First of all, it was big for us to bring back Jimmie Ward. I know that's a hot button item because he hasn't been able to stay healthy," Lynch said, acknowledging the frustration among fans surrounding Ward. "We aren't blind to that. We understand that. There's a lot to like about Jimmie Ward, though, in what he brings. Are we taking a gamble? Yes, but that's accounted for in our contract with him. Jimmie wanted to be here, and we wanted to give him that opportunity to come back."
Ward will have every chance to be the team's starter, but he'll have to beat out third-year pro Adrian Colbert. That's a name that had an impact on the 49ers decision not to pay big at free safety in the open market. Adding a guy like Earl Thomas would all but admit the team is throwing in the towel on Colbert, and nobody is ready to do that just yet.
The seventh-round pick in 2017 flashed as a rookie as the team's starting free safety over the final six games. His play slipped in 2018 before suffering a season-ending injury seven games into the season. Still, Lynch believes he's capable of being an NFL starter.
"For whatever reason, he didn't carry over that rookie season, and then (he) got hurt," Lynch said. "We felt like he was starting to play like the guy we saw his rookie season that we thought was going to be our long-term answer at free safety. He's very much in that conversation."
Exum provides depth at both safety spots. He started seven games for the 49ers in 2018, recording one sack, one forced fumble and a pick six. Lynch noted that 2018 fifth-round pick D.J. Reed is capable of playing free safety as well. So, too, is Jaquiski Tartt in case the 49ers opt to start Marcell Harris at strong safety.
That's all to say that the 49ers have several options. Their belief is that the defense will be in good shape heading into the regular season regardless of how the training camp competition plays out.
"We feel good about our free safety depth," Lynch said. "We feel we're pretty well stocked there."