Over $8 million for a backup? The 49ers are OK with it

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- At various points in his four-year NFL career, San Francisco 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward has played outside cornerback, safety and nickel cornerback. He was a starter in three of those seasons.

Those position changes can be viewed as both a testament to the value of his versatility and to how difficult it has been to nail down his best fit. As the Niners head into 2018, they're still searching for the answer to those questions.

But what if Ward's best spot isn't as a starter at any of those positions but as the primary backup at all five? While there's still an entire training camp and preseason to go before the Niners can make that determination, all indications are that it's a bet the 49ers are willing to make.

“That’s a compliment I like to give Jimmie," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "That’s the type of player he is and how talented he is, that he’s capable. ... I’m hoping, which I think we have, we’ve added very good competition, so it’s not going to be easy for him to start at any of those five."

Under normal circumstances, the idea of experimenting with making one player a super utility man in the secondary would seem a harmless proposition. The Niners' bet on Ward comes with a little more scrutiny based on how many chips they're willing to gamble that he will provide a return on their investment.

Playing the final season of his rookie deal under the fifth-year option, Ward is set to make $8,526,000 in 2018. That money became fully guaranteed when Ward was still on the roster at the start of the new league year in March. For perspective, the five players expected to start at the two safety and three cornerback slots -- Adrian Colbert, Jaquiski Tartt, Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon and K'Waun Williams -- are slated to count just over $13 million combined against the cap. Suffice to say, Ward's price tag is big for a backup, even one who could be first off the bench at five spots in the secondary.

The Niners believe having a capable backup -- Ward was a first-round draft pick in 2014 and has 24 career starts and nearly 2000 NFL snaps to his name -- could prove to be a commodity worth investing in. After all, last year's 49ers endured more than their share of injuries in the secondary. Among the projected starters entering the 2017 season, only cornerback Dontae Johnson played in and started all 16 games, and he departed for the Seattle Seahawks in free agency.

Other than Johnson, the Niners traded cornerback Rashard Robinson to the New York Jets after he struggled early in the season; nickel corner Williams missed two games with a quadriceps injury. Safeties Tartt and Eric Reid missed seven and three games, respectively, with injuries.

All of those issues regularly left San Francisco scrambling for solutions from a group that was mostly unproven and inexperienced. As it stands, the Niners' depth heading toward this season isn't much different than it was last season. Other than Ward and the projected starting group, the Niners have 11 defensive backs, seven of whom are rookies.

Considering that teams can keep only 46 players active on game day, those who can play multiple positions have even more value, which is a big part of Ward's appeal.

"You love having guys with versatility," secondary coach Jeff Hafley said. "It brings more on game day with the amount of guys you can dress. If guys go down, you can move guys around. On third down, you can plug and play guys in certain packages, especially if teams have multiple receivers in the game. He’s a guy we know can do a lot."

Of course, Ward's super-sub potential isn't solely rooted in the idea of having someone who can step in at any spot at any time. It's also a matter of circumstances. First and foremost, the 49ers were in a unique position where they began the offseason with more salary-cap space than every team except the Cleveland Browns, which means they could afford to have a luxury item or two on the roster.

Also, the fact that Ward isn't currently projected as a starter comes in part from his own injury problems. Ward opened last season as the starter at free safety before a broken forearm cost him the final eight games. In four seasons, Ward has missed 22 games with foot, collarbone and forearm ailments. He's finished three of those four seasons on injured reserve.

For now, Ward is working exclusively at cornerback as Sherman comes back from November's Achilles injury, though he'll likely get reps at the other spots when camp opens in July.

Although Ward played corner for most of his first three seasons, he hasn't played there in the current defensive system installed by coordinator Robert Saleh. The change is more dramatic than it might seem given that previous defenses required Ward to play mostly man coverage and Saleh's defense is zone-heavy.

“When you’re trying to get somebody acclimated to a position, they need reps," Saleh said. "It’s very hard to ask a guy to play corner, nickel when he needs to get re-acclimated to playing corner again. ... He’s got to relearn a position, so we want to make sure that we give him every opportunity to do that.”

For his part, Ward doesn't seem to mind the change in responsibilities. In a Week 5 loss to the Indianapolis Colts last season, injuries forced Ward to spend time at free safety, outside corner and in the nickel. He's even gone so far as to set a goal unique to his new role.

"I kind of want to catch a pick at all three positions," Ward said. "I like it. Coming in as a college kid, I was just a safety and I played nickel. I never thought I was going to be playing corner in the NFL. Normally you play corner when you’re young and if it doesn’t work out, you move to safety. I was able to move from safety to corner. There’s not many guys doing that in the NFL."