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Jimmie Ward says he never refused to play nickel, not ruling out return to 49ers

Mar 7, 2023 at 12:24 PM--

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After the 2022 season, Jimmie Ward shared the story of him going to Kyle Shanahan and pleading with his head coach to return to playing safety. With Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson capably handling the safety spots, the San Francisco 49ers insisted Ward play at the nickel position.

According to Ward, Shanahan said he had a choice. He could move to the slot or "ride the bench."

The 49ers brain trust remembers the situation differently.

"Kyle doesn't remember it quite like that," general manager John Lynch told NBC Sports Bay Area. "We were never benching Jimmie. I think he more tried to sell him on why it was a good thing for him and our team."

Lynch understands that Ward prefers playing safety, which will likely influence any decision he makes when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next week.

During a recent Instagram Live broadcast, Ward shared his thoughts on the conversations about moving to nickel.

"Let's talk about that nickel stuff," Ward said. "I never refused to play nickel. I never refused to play nickel. I always wanted to play nickel because I watch a lot of film, so I used to see, easy."

Ward says he remembers watching K'Waun Williams depart for the Denver Broncos, thinking he might start needing some reps in the slot—just in case. So he asked for the reps during organized team activities (OTAs) and training camp.

As the offseason progressed, Ward felt it was likely the 49ers would use Samuel Womack at the nickel spot.

"So once they drafted [Womack] and they was putting [Deommodore Lenoir] in there a little bit, they was putting Demo in the slot, so I couldn't get any reps," Ward explained. "It's like, 'Okay. All right. I can't get any reps. But if something happens and somebody goes down, you're just going to throw Jimmie Ward out there and tell me to sink or swim?'

"I was basically protecting myself. … It's a whole other world in that slot. I ended up figuring it out."

It looked like Ward was saying goodbye to his teammates after the 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game. Paired with not wanting to nickel and looking for a good payday, it seemed unlikely the defensive back was considering returning.

"I didn't say I'm leaving the Niners, man," Ward said (h/t Tom Dierberger of NBC Sports Bay Area). "... I've been in contact with the Niners. I don't know how it's going to go. … I could be playing nickel for the Niners next year, I don't know. We'll see. I've got to look at the best situation."

Ward accrued 50 tackles, a tackle for a loss, two quarterback hits, five passes defensed, three interceptions, and a forced fumble through 12 game appearances with the 49ers this past season, per Pro Football Reference. He is still working out at the team's facility in Santa Clara and remains in communication with the 49ers' decision-makers.

"I'm going to holler at Kyle and John … see if they can throw your boy a bag," Ward said. "... I'd play for anybody who is going to put me in a position to win. I'll play for any team that is going to pay me what I'm worth. It don't matter the team."

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