Jimmie Ward's nickel improvisation makes him invaluable to 49ers' secondary

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Why Ward could be 49ers' most valuable defensive back originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SANTA CLARA — The position Jimmie Ward plays on the 49ers' defense might be uncertain at times, but his ability to succeed is a given.

While most players would be upset or unable to adjust to a new role on the field, Ward has shown his ability to thrive in whatever circumstance is thrown at him. Being able to play the nickel back role is just another talent the veteran safety can add to his resume.

“I'm happy,” Ward said after the club’s 38-13 win over the Arizona Cardinals. “I caught a pick at every DB position. Then, not to mention, I didn't have no OTAs, I didn't have camp to play nickel. So you put me in man coverage with number one wide receivers with slots that's getting paid $16 and $17 million and you tell me to lock them up.”

Ward suffered a hamstring injury prior to the start of the season, placing him on injured reserve until Week 5. That forced San Francisco to sign Tashaun Gipson to the squad to play along side second-year safety Talanoa Hufanga.

In Week 5, on the first snap of Ward’s return, the veteran safety broke a bone in his hand on the opening kickoff in the 49ers' win over the Carolina Panthers. Two weeks later, the nine-year veteran returned to the field with a cast on his hand, played 88 percent of the defensive snaps and managed two solo tackles.

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has been impressed by Ward’s ability to play nearly any position on the defense. The coach spoke to local media on a conference call Monday about his respect for the versatile defensive back.

“I think each week he gets more and more comfortable,” Shanahan said. “I think coming off the injury it took him a little bit just to get back into football anyways, and then to be thrown in at that position, I think those first couple weeks were tough, just feeling like a fish out of water a little bit, getting his feet under him, having to go that sometimes guard the fastest receivers on the other team.

“He’s really worked at it. He’s put in a lot of time. He practices every single day; he does walkthrough the exact same way he does full speed stuff and it’s a huge credit to him and the coaching staff with just how far he’s come learning that position and how talented he’s always been and enough to play it.”

Ward has been incredibly effective in coverage. Per PFF, Ward has never allowed more than 62 yards receiving in a single game, and no more than 29 yards over the past four contests.

RELATED: Purdy's PFF grades vs. Cards show he thrives under pressure

Maybe the most impressive game of Ward’s 2022 season was the club’s Week 14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when quarterback Tom Brady targeted the nickel back 17 times but only connected with his receivers on 10 attempts for 56 yards.

Ward will become a free agent in March. The veteran knows that, again, his future is uncertain.

“I’m happy to be part of the 49ers organization," Ward said. "To be honest this is a winning organization, and I get to leave my legacy here. Nine years, if that’s it for me or whatever, I did a lot of great stuff here. People will always remember Jimmie Ward."

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