49ers should start Lorenzo Jerome at safety and move Jimmie Ward to cornerback

Sep 1, 2017 at 7:45 PM


The San Francisco 49ers received some tremendously impressive play from undrafted free-agent safety Lorenzo Jerome, which could afford the Niners to move their likely starting safety, Jimmie Ward, back to cornerback.


Here's an out-of-the-box argument, but the San Francisco 49ers should consider starting Lorenzo Jerome at free safety and moving Jimmie Ward back to cornerback.

The Niners' full wave of roster cuts isn't complete yet, and there remains the outside chance Jerome -- an undrafted free agent -- doesn't make the 53-man roster. It's also possible a massive rain storm hits Northern California in July. Possible, but not likely at all.

It's also possible Ward (hamstring) isn't ready to go for the start of the regular season. If that's the case, Jerome stands a strong chance to actually start in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers on September 10.

We shouldn't have to sing Jerome's praises. He had a more-than impressive training camp and saw plenty of snaps with first-team units over much of the preseason. Over a month ago, Niners Wire's Jerod Brown predicted Jerome would even be the primary backup at the free safety position:


Even if Ward comes back soon, Jerome should stay there, starting.

There are a few reasons for this. Both are natural fits at free safety. But Jerome is more of the ballhawk, at least from the college statistics, posting 18 interceptions over four seasons compared to Ward's 11 over the same length of collegiate tenure. And Ward has only two at the NFL level of which to speak. Granted, things come a little differently within the pro ranks, and no one knows what Ward's numbers would have been had he stayed at safety after the 49ers drafted him.

Still, it's something to consider.

More importantly, though, is the fact the Niners don't exactly have a deep crop of cornerbacks on their roster. No. 1 corner Rashard Robinson had plenty of issues in the preseason. And unless you're banking on major contributions from depth guys, like Dontae Johnson and/or Keith Reaser -- either could still be cut before the deadline -- there isn't a lot of confidence from the deeper ranks.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh figures to use a lot of Cover 3 this season, which calls for a single-high safety and the strong safety up in the box. Doing this requires cornerbacks to operate in more one-on-one coverage than the more-standard Cover 2 alignments.

This strategy puts more defenders in the box at the risk of exposing corners. If those corners can stay with their receivers, the risk diminishes greatly.

A year ago, Pro Football Focus gave Ward a 74.1 pass-coverage grade -- highest among all returning 49ers defensive backs, and that was at corner. In comparison, Robinson had a 61.6 mark in the same category.

Moving Ward back down to corner would take pressure off Robinson's development. The second-year pro wouldn't be asked to serve as San Francisco's top cover guy, rather match up against opponents' No. 2 receivers.

There's another, more-simple reason to make the switch. Ward has a notable injury history. His rookie season, back in 2014, was shortened by a foot injury. While he stayed healthy all of 2015, a shoulder injury limited him to just 11 games last season.

Safeties, by nature, often make their tackles running towards the ball-carrier. In contrast, cornerbacks are often running with the receivers they're covering. Cornerback tackles typically require less force, therefore decreasing the chance for serious injury. While there are many more factors in play here, one could look at it as a head-on collision versus a side-swipe fender bender, for comparison.

Ward's injury risk should decrease. And moving him back to corner would lessen the burden on this already-thin position.

Lastly, it would give San Francisco a real-time ability to evaluate whether or not Jerome is a long-term fit at this spot -- an essential move for what still looks to be a long rebuild.
  • Written by:
    Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game and the Niners' flagship station, KNBR 680. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to his Twitter account.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


5 Comments

  • @9ernewswriter
    I wrote about this last week on The Hub. It's a s a good argument and one I believe will be good for the secondary if it was to play out.
    Sep 2, 2017 at 9:10 PM
    16
  • tom
    I think the Niners will probably cut upwards of 20 players today and find several free agent cutdowns to improve the roster and that one of those could very well be at safety(T.J.Ward?). I know they want youth but a veteran to stabalize the D-backs might be a good idea.
    Sep 2, 2017 at 10:55 AM
    21
  • mbniner
    There are pros and cons to this and I bet that Lynch and Shanny have discussed it. Wards speed and range is perfectly fitted to the free safety role. But his injury history is troubling. He is also a great cover CB but is short and big receivers give him fits. I think that it is probably best to keep him at Free Safety and hope he can stay healthy while Jerome (or a new addition) gains experience as a backup.
    Sep 2, 2017 at 9:54 AM
    15
  • The Grigga
    No no no.... I guess people don't understand that Jimmie Ward is a natural safety. The first announcement or one of the first announcements roster wise was Jimmy Ward was going to safety. And that comes from our nine-time Pro Bowl safety GM. It's time for Dante Johnson to play he's been at and I think he is going to have an excellent season...I also believe Ward will have 5-7 ints..... If we really want to upgrade our second Corner Spot sign Darrelle Revis. He's lost a step but he would be our second best corner.
    Sep 2, 2017 at 7:20 AM
    25
  • Joel P
    I've been saying this to people since ward got hurt, just put him back at corner and let the kid play FS.
    Sep 1, 2017 at 9:44 PM
    29

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