Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports



Players report to the 49ers facility in Santa Clara today, and practices will commence tomorrow. Yes folks, training camp is nearly here, and with it comes the opportunity for coaches, media, and fans alike to assess the team's roster. Today, I'll finish up with the last of the three players I believe are the most important to the growth of the team moving forward. I've made my case for each of the first two selections, and today I'll explain the vital role one last player could have in returning the 49ers to contention. Over the last two days, I identified the player I see as the third most important 49er to watch in 2017, as well as the player I see as the second most important 49er to watch in 2017.

So far we have focused on discussing the offense, but the 49ers' most recent rise to prominence was driven by their defense, and the defense is this team's best hope for a significant uptick in the win column. It is easy to argue that the most important player on any defense is a premier pass rusher, but there's no one player who features prominently in that role at the moment, and the defense could be very good without one player amassing a bunch of sacks and pressures.

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


With DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Arik Armstead able to collapse the pocket from the inside, aided by rotational contributions from high-effort depth players Ronald Blair and Chris Jones, the 49ers should be able to prevent quarterbacks from having clear passing lanes and stepping up in the pocket. Keeping quarterbacks at depth should set the table for the army of edge rushers the 49ers will sort out during camp: Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Dekoda Watson, Pita Taumoepenu, and Jimmie Gilbert. Those seven will have to compete for edge rushing snaps with Armstead and Thomas, who have enjoyed most of their success inside, but who have spent time training as edge rushers this offseason, and who will likely rush from different locations in 2017.

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With the deep pool of names factoring into the pass rush this year, we'll turn our attention to another vital role in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh's scheme. This position will feature no competition at the top, as there is only one player on the roster with the physical and mental makeup to excel and emerge as a star. Of course, I am talking about Jimmie Ward at free safety. In any single-high defense, the safety has a ton of responsibility to protect his teammates over the top of the defense and allow them to harass receivers and throw off timing routes. In Saleh's defense, the job will likely be even more important, with the cornerbacks spending an elevated percentage of their snaps in man coverage. Ward will have to provide downfield support from sideline to sideline on pass plays, as well as cleaning up the debris created by an aggressive front eight (Eric Reid, the presumptive starter at strong safety, will often play close to the line of scrimmage) on run plays.

Ward has the tools to be a Pro Bowler in this defense. His three years as a nickel cornerback and, most recently, as an outside cornerback, may have allowed the Faithful to forget what a promising talent he was as a free safety at Northern Illinois University. Ward occasionally rotated to the slot to lock down troublesome slot receivers, displaying the feet and hips for close man coverage that won him the nickel job his rookie year with the 49ers, but he was special reacting from depth to plays developing in front of him. He delivered punishing hits and displayed the instincts, acceleration, and ball skills to make passing between the numbers a gamble on any play. If he can recapture that style of play, he could evoke thoughts of a taller, thinner Earl Thomas amongst NFC West fans.

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That "taller" piece could be significant. As quickly as Earl Thomas gets to plays, football is so often referred to as a "game of inches," that the statement has become cliché. The thing is, clichés exist for a reason. 49er fans need look no further than the NFC Championship game following the 2013 season, in which Thomas's considerable instincts and athletic gifts put him in great position to cover Anquan Boldin in the end zone, but Colin Kaepernick was able to place the ball just inches (SEE!?! "Game of inches") above Thomas's outstretched fingers. Placed in the same position, Ward might make a play on that ball.

Unfortunately, that "taller" designation was accompanied with a "thinner" designation. There should be concern that Ward's frame (he is listed at 193 pounds) and host of previous injuries (foot, clavicle, and quadriceps) could make him even more susceptible to injury at safety, where hitting from depth generally results in higher impact collisions. If he can't hold up to the impact at safety, the 49ers have little depth behind him. None of the players on the 90-man roster can range sideline to sideline like Ward, and the defensive calls and the implementation of coverages would have to adjust to Ward's absence.

Most likely, the 49ers would spend more time in more conventional cover-three looks, requiring the cornerbacks to each cover one deep third of the field, giving them less opportunity to aggressively disrupt rhythm passing. One could simply look at what happened to the Seahawks defense when Earl Thomas was injured to see the dramatic drop in effectiveness that unit suffered. Safeties that can perform like Thomas and (presumably) Ward are difficult to find and expensive to retain. It is hard to carry two players with that skill set on the same roster, so the one you have has got to last the year.

If Ward can regain his safety instincts, he has a chance to allow the entire defense in front of him to play with ferocity and confidence. If he can play physically without enduring another injury, the defense can enjoy a dramatic bounce back from last season's drawn-out humiliation. With his fifth year option already locked in, ensuring Ward is a 49er through 2018, the 49ers will have secured a rare and valuable piece to build the rest of the defense around.