An already dominant 49ers defense got some fine-tuning in the offseason with the team's secondary getting a boost via the NFL draft and free agency. While much of the focus was on fortifying the cornerback position, San Francisco did add three safeties to the roster including undrafted rookies Tayler Hawkins and Leon O'Neal Jr. along with fifth-year veteran George Odum. The trio joined safeties Jimmie Ward, Tarvarius Moore and sophomores Deommodore Lenoir and Talanoa Hufanga.
With a group largely made up of rookies and second-year players, Ward, who is entering his ninth year in the league, is embracing his role as the veteran anchor of the DBs.
"You see Jimmie becoming a true leader," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "When I first got here, Jimmie didn't say much on the field, but I can see him being in more of that leadership role. He has some younger guys that are back there with him now. You see him becoming more vocal, whether it's talking to the team or bringing up the defense."
The safety's more vocal presence and competitive play on the field has helped raise the level of competition amongst the defensive backs early in camp. Ward came up with an interception on Day 2 of practices which is part of a collective 12 from the defense through Wednesday's workout.
"One thing you don't have to worry about with Jimmie, he's going to go out and play lights out," Ryans said. "He's going to bring it every day. He's going to be consistent. He's going to swarm to the ball. He's going to be relentless. He's going to compete every single day. When you have a veteran guy who's been in the league for nine years, and he's done it at a high level, and he does it at practice every single day, it just makes the guys around you better… He's one of the best safeties in this league, and I'm happy to have him on our side."
"We've been playing lights out," Ward said. "We've been making some great plays. We've just got to keep doing that every day. At the same time, like I said, we've been battling. We just saw Brandon Aiyuk and Trey Lance. The BA and Trey connection, it's crazy right now. They've been making plays on us, but overall, DBs, we've been stepping it up this year."
Ward's praise of Aiyuk during Wednesday's post-practice press conference did not end there. The veteran safety is often tasked with covering No. 11 in team drills and made note of the tremendous strides he's taken from Year 2 to Year 3 in the league.
"Right now, he's having an outstanding camp," Ward added. "I feel like he's having the best camp out of everybody on the team, offense and defense, besides Nick Bosa – Bosa is going to be Bosa. BA is taking his game to another level. I haven't won a 1-on-1 rep with him yet. Last year there were a couple reps that I won against him but not this year. I'm going to get him soon though."
Ward will have his next shot at 1-on-1 drills Friday after the team returns from its second scheduled off-day.