Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Not so fast, Jimmie Ward; Tarvarius Moore making impending safety decision tough for 49ers

Aug 16, 2019 at 2:49 PM--

Some will say that the best ability for a football player is availability. That's why many among the Niner Faithful don't want to see the starting free safety job just handed to Jimmie Ward when he returns to team drills — whenever that will be.

Ward has not been full-go since fracturing his collarbone during practice on May 23. If this latest injury were an anomaly, the fan base probably wouldn't have an issue with the San Francisco 49ers handing Ward the starting job upon his return. It wasn't a one-time thing, though, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh always seems to give the often-injured defensive back the benefit of the doubt.

As do the 49ers.

San Francisco signed Ward to a one-year deal worth up to $4.5 million when fans assumed the team would just let him walk. The coaches obviously believe in the defensive back's ability. Ability isn't as much of a concern as his availability has been.

Before this latest injury, four of Ward's five NFL seasons have ended on injured reserve. He suffered a fractured foot during his 2014 rookie year, a fractured clavicle in 2016, and a broken forearm during each of the past two seasons. The injuries aren't attributed to just bad luck, but the defensive back's aggressive style of play.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan even noted earlier this week that Ward's playing style is the reason why he is being eased back from the collarbone injury.

"Jimmie Ward is cleared and everything," Shanahan said, "but coming off a collarbone, we're trying to ease him in to when he can hit. We know Jimmie is going to hit every single second he has a chance to so we've got to protect him from himself a little bit."

Meanwhile, Ward's absence has allowed safety Tarvarius Moore to take advantage of the first-team reps on defense. He has looked impressive and on Friday hauled in his third interception over the past two practices. The latest came against Denver Broncos veteran quarterback Joe Flacco during the two teams' joint practice.

Saleh would often note that Moore is still raw and not yet ready to be declared an NFL starter. Moore is doing everything he can to prove himself on the practice field and prove doubters wrong.

"He's made tremendous strides from just getting aligned," Saleh told reporters after Friday's practice, "being more vocal, giving out alerts, talking to the linebackers, talking to the safeties, talking to the corners, even talking to the D-line, which he has to do at safety. He's made tremendous strides.

"He hasn't scratched the ceiling yet, so he's got to continue working. Every single rep, there's something new for him. and he's definitely going in the right direction, so I'm pumped for him."

Maybe, just maybe, Moore is making the impending starting safety decision more complicated than anyone previously thought it would be. Perhaps Ward won't automatically be in the discussion to be a starter — again, whenever he returns to playing.

"It's definitely something to talk about," Saleh added. "Tarvarius, you know, he had the door open, but we always talk about, if you get your foot in the door, it's your job to blow that thing open. He's doing a good job. He's going to make it very difficult."

Cornerback Richard Sherman believes Moore's leap has to do with the young defensive back finally playing at his natural position. The 49ers drafted the college safety and groomed him to play cornerback during his rookie season. It was a decision that seemed to come out of need but was still questioned by many.

"He's been making plays since he moved back (to safety) in OTAs," Sherman said on Friday. "When they moved him back, I don't think they were expecting the kind of progress that he's shown right away. I think that's his natural position.

"He does incredibly well with space and understanding and (has) just a great feel for the ball. The ball just seems to find him. I'm very impressed with him, and hopefully, he keeps growing and keeps getting better."

If Ward can't get back onto the field and stay there, the 49ers' infatuation with the defensive back might finally come to an end. The biggest beneficiary might be Moore.

The 49ers also have third-year safety Adrian Colbert, who showed over this past weekend that he can still be impactful with his speed and hard-hitting play. Of course, his night was cut short after the safety was disqualified and escorted to the locker room for hitting a defenseless receiver.

Even with Ward limited, Colbert appears to be viewed as the third free safety on the depth chart. He was, by the way, the team's starting free safety last year before being injured. Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area believes Colbert might have to prove his worth on special teams to ensure a spot on the roster.

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