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49ers excited about Jimmie Ward at free safety, plan to use option

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Of the many needs the San Francisco 49ers filled during the NFL draft -- including seven picks on defense -- one position was conspicuous by its absence: safety.

For most of the offseason, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch indicated that they wanted to give cornerback Jimmie Ward a chance to move to free safety. Moving Ward was a natural solution to fill an important role in coordinator Robert Saleh's defense given his experience playing there in college. But Ward hadn't played there in years and it was no sure thing that he'd be able to step in and handle the job how the Niners hoped.

So the Niners held their additional minicamp last week before the draft, in part because they wanted to get a little better handle on the in-house personnel before making additions in the draft. Ward apparently did enough to prove that he will be the team's first choice to handle the free safety job and, taking it a step further, for the Niners to be set to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract to ensure they will retain control of his rights through the 2018 season.

"I was real excited with what we saw from him in camp," Shanahan said. "It was the first time I’d seen him at the safety position and thought he did a very good job. It was just two practices, it’s unpadded, but he has definitely the ability and the want-to to play there. Again, that’s not why you go into a draft and say we’re not taking that position. I don’t think we really did that with any position. But, we’re very excited about him and the possibilities of him being a very good safety.”

The 49ers did add cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in the third round and he's a candidate to compete for the starting job as an outside corner that Ward left behind in his move to safety. They also drafted cornerback/safety Adrian Colbert in the seventh round but Lynch indicated that Colbert will probably start out at cornerback.

At safety, San Francisco does look poised to add some depth, as they agreed to terms with intriguing prospect Lorenzo Jerome from St. Francis University as an undrafted free agent.

As for Ward, the Niners have until Wednesday to officially exercise the option. NFL rules allow teams a fifth-year option on first-round draft picks with compensation coming based on where they were picked within the round and guaranteeing that money for injury only if the option is exercised. Last week, Lynch indicated he wasn't sure whether the Niners would exercise that option but that tune changed a bit on the draft's final day.

Given what's on the roster and the early impression Ward made on Shanahan, it appears the 49ers will indeed take advantage of the opportunity to ensure Ward is a Niner in 2018.

"It’s looking like that," Lynch said. "[I] had no clue when you guys asked me that the other day. I had no idea. I had been focused on the draft. But, made me go check.”