SANTA CLARA — Jimmie Ward saw the Denver Broncos approach the line of scrimmage and he quickly diagnosed their upcoming play. Ward shouted instructions to the 49ers defenders in front of him, just as their free safety normally would.
One problem: Ward did all this from the sideline during last week’s practices.
The 49ers went through training camp and their first two exhibitions while Ward marinated on the physically-unable-to-perform list. With 2 1/2 weeks to spare before the regular season, Ward could make his practice debut Wednesday, if his hamstring responds well from conditioning tests.
His absence thus far has generated several questions – and intriguing answers. Let’s look at them:
1. Could Lorenzo Jerome remain the starting free safety?
An undrafted rookie from St. Francis (Pa.), Jerome has all but secured at least a roster spot with his ball-hawking skills and unapologetic physical play. He’s climbed the depth chart ahead of Vinnie Sunseri and Don Jones, but not yet ahead of the idling Ward.
“Me and (Ward) are just going to compete,” Jerome said after Saturday’s loss to the Broncos. “If coaches want me to play, I’ll play.”
Jerome has started both exhibitions and flashed all month. He used first-team practice reps to gain both coaches’ trust and valuable teaching points. “They’re preparing me the best every day,” Jerome said.
“He’s grown up a lot,” strong safety Eric Reid said. “To be running with the ones, it’s tough. I remember my rookie year and the pressure that comes with that. You want to live up to the expectations that comes with that, and he’s been doing well.”
The 49ers, however, still envision Ward doing great things at free safety. They’re hoping to clone him into Earl Thomas’ “Eraser” role for the Seattle Seahawks, where he cleans up mistakes in a similar, single-high-safety scheme.
Thomas is 5-foot-10 and 202 pounds, as is Jerome, plus two pounds on the 49ers’ official roster. Ward is listed at 5-foot-11, 193 pounds.
Jerome could be a diamond in the rough, or he could be another training camp mirage (see: Hayne, Jarryd). He is raw. He’s risky. He gambles in coverage. But that aggressiveness has been lacking in the secondary for years.
The 49ers shouldn’t be knocked for slow playing Jerome’s rise, even as their unofficial depth chart for Sunday night’s exhibition at Minnesota lists him behind Ward and Sunseri.
Coach Kyle Shanahan shot down the notion of moving Ward back to cornerback when asked of that Saturday night: “We’re just trying to get Jimmie back healthy to see if he can play safety right now.”
2. Can Ward be relied upon from a health standpoint?
If a player’s most important ability is “availability,” Ward does not have the greatest medical record. He’s missed 13 games in three seasons because of foot, quadriceps and collar bone injuries; he overcame a concussion last season to not miss more time.
To his credit, he did play all 16 games in 2015 and won the team’s Hazeltine Iron Man Award.
The 2014 first-round draft pick out of Northern Illinois has two interceptions in 35 career games while bouncing from nickel back to outside cornerback. His versatility and commitment to film study are major pluses for an evolving and eager defense.
“He’s stayed mentally strong,” Reid said. “He’s still himself. He hasn’t sunk into a depression, which I know can happen when you get hurt. But he comes back (this) week, we’re excited about that and can’t wait to see him out here.”
Ward said in April he likes all spots in the secondary, but as far as free safety’s allure, he likes how he can “just really fly to the ball and make plays.” That said, it will also require more tackling, and a greater chance of injury.
The 49ers did not draft a true safety nor sign one in free agency as a backup plan. They waited until after the draft to exercise’s Ward’s fifth-year option for 2018, when his salary jumps from $690,000 to $8.5 million, if they don’t void it first. Ward, like many others, is being asked to prove himself (and his durability) under a new regime.
3. Why is Reid more accustomed to the strong safety role?
Safeties basically played interchangeable roles in the 49ers recent defenses, mainly tasked to prevent big plays in the pass game. This season’s version implores the free safety to patrol the secondary while the strong safety plays closer to the box, the latter of which Reid looks like a natural fit, especially against the run.
Asked if he’s almost a quasi-linebacker, Reid replied: “Yeah, some plays I am a linebacker basically. That linebacker mentality has been big. … Tackling is my favorite part of the game. I love big hits and I get more opportunity to do that.”
John Lynch, the 49ers general manager and a former All-Pro safety, calls Reid “a great fit” for the defense. Reid, ever the ideal team spokesman, says both Ward and Jerome definitely can succeed as the 49ers’ free safety of the future.
— The team-issued depth chart remains unchanged at quarterback: Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. Also, Ahmad Brooks is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker ahead of Eli Harold, even though those roles flipped last exhibition.
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