• Matt Barr

How Does the 49ers Free Safety Depth Chart Shake Out when Jimmie Ward Returns?

Image Credit: Bay Area News Group

The San Francisco 49ers safety depth, or lack thereof, has been a hot topic since the end of last season. The position has been all but ignored since head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over the franchise. Seemingly in line to make a splash signing during free agency, 49ers fans were stuck watching the plethora of safety talent sign elsewhere during the offseason. The lone move the front office did make, re-signing former first-round pick Jimmie Ward, was much more popular in the locker room than it was to the fanbase. The oft-injured safety lived up to his reputation when he broke his collarbone during organized team activities in May. Training camp is in full swing and now Ward is finally set to make his return. Where does he fit in now?

The biggest change for the safety group is a shift in schematic responsibilities for the free and strong safeties. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has moved away from directly emulating the classic Seattle defense. No longer are the free safety expected to play a single-high, centerfield type role and the strong safety to solely play in the box. Now, both safety positions are going to become more interchangeable to fit the skill sets of the players on the roster. With no true free or strong safeties on the team, this will allow Saleh to be more deceptive with his personnel.

Ward’s injury was a big hit to the safety depth during OTAs. This forced new defensive backs coach Joe Woods to move sophomore cornerback Tarvarius Moore back to his college position. Since that shift, Moore has been the leader in snaps at the safety position throughout training camp. He often appeared to be a failed experiment at CB last season and was viewed as a square peg being forced into a round hole. Back in his natural position, Moore is excelling and showing the athleticism that led the 49ers to take him in the third round of last year’s draft.

Entering the fifth year of his career, Jaquiski Tartt is also taking first-team snaps alongside Tarvarius Moore. An intriguing blend of size, speed and ball skills, Tartt’s biggest issue has always been staying healthy. He has never played a full 16-game slate and has only played in 17 games over the last two seasons. Tartt was awarded an extension by the current regime and this season is the one where he must live up to the money. His skill set is perfectly built to succeed in the new defensive scheme and could even be utilized as a hybrid linebacker-safety in certain subpackages.

The rest of the safeties are young players trying to get a foothold on their careers. Adrian Colbert is looking to bounce back from a dismal second season following a very strong rookie campaign. He, along with much of the 2018 secondary, looked lost on many plays, suffering from a lack of communication across the board. Marcell Harris and Antone Exum Jr. were both thrust into meaningful roles when injuries ravaged the safety group. Both will continue to fight for roster spots and to prove that they are worthy of more playing time this season.

This all leads to Jimmie Ward. The player that the 49ers cannot seem to separate themselves from. In all likelihood, he will slot back in as the starter alongside Tartt upon his return from the broken collarbone. This is not the approach that the team should use for one simple reason: Jimmie Ward is adjusting to a new defensive position for the sixth time in six seasons. The only consistent aspect of his career has been an inconsistency in the role the team has asked him to play. Ward may be a good presence in the locker room but that does not make him the most talented player and the most talented players should play.

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