The San Francisco 49ers were long assumed to become offseason suitors of free safety Earl Thomas. The signing would have made a lot of sense. The 49ers had a lot of a salary cap room, a perceived need to upgrade the position, and Thomas was familiar with the Seattle-based scheme the team runs.

Cornerback Richard Sherman expected San Francisco's decision-makers to throw their hat in the ring to acquire his former Seahawks teammate.

"If finances make sense, then I'd say we're a major player in it if everything aligns the right way," Sherman said in February.

Things didn't align the right way, and the 49ers were never reported to be serious contenders for Thomas' services. He ended up signing a four-year deal worth up to $55 million with the Baltimore Ravens, becoming the third-highest paid safety in the NFL and the second-highest paid free safety.

San Francisco didn't make a big free agency move at safety. Instead, it re-signed Jimmie Ward to a one-year deal worth up to $4.5 million with $3 million guaranteed. Did the 49ers' lack of a big move at the position surprise Sherman?

"Not really," Sherman responded on Tuesday. "Once they re-signed Jimmie, they really felt comfortable with Jimmie and [Adrian Colbert] back there in a competition.

"Obviously last year, Jimmie was kind of in flux playing corner, playing nickel, playing safety, strong safety, free safety. Any time you do that, you make a guy a jack of all trades, but he masters none. He doesn't have a chance to be really great at any one thing, and this year, he's finally getting to just master free safety."

Tuesday was the first day the media got a chance to observe a 49ers practice during organized team activities (OTAs). Ward worked with the first-team defense and looked impressive enough to understand why Sherman has so much confidence in the sixth-year defensive back, assuming he can stay healthy.

"He's just been really detailed. He's on it," Sherman said. "Obviously, the middle of the field spot, there's been a few tweaks in our defense, a few nuances that have changed. He's been really on it. He's been really detailed. He has incredible range, obviously, as you guys know. I think it's given him a lot of confidence going into this year."

Sherman also noted that Ward is a great teammate and is always willing to do whatever is asked of him. That was made obvious given the myriad of positions he has played. Some of that has been to find a proper fit for the former first-round pick while injuries have sometimes created a need.

Ward's inability to stay healthy remains a concern. He plays the game fast and hard, which makes him susceptible to injury. Ward has ended each of his last three seasons on injured reserve.

"I just play physical. I don't know any other way," Ward told the Sacramento Bee in November.

Ward has an opportunity to be a significant contributor if he can remain on the football field for a full season.

"I think that him being able to focus on one spot is going to go lightyears because he is a great player," Sherman added. "He's a tremendous player. Obviously, the health has been kind of up and down."