There might not be a more cloudy training camp competition for the San Francisco 49ers than at cornerback.
And while it's been difficult to assess that competition during OTAs because of the limited participation by some players and minimal contact allowed, there's also key wild card that hasn't taken the field yet.
Instead of getting work between the lines with his teammates in 7-on-7s and team drills during OTAs, first-round pick Jimmie Ward is continuing to rehab his foot injury that was discovered at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. The 49ers have remained cautious with a number of players coming off injuries at this point of the season. Ward is no different.
Last week Ward said he's making steady progress since having surgery in early March to insert a screw into his foot where he suffered a Jones fracture. The injury didn't prevent him from participating in his local pro day just days before the surgery, but the 49ers are taking a vigilant approach with their young defensive back during his recovery.
"(I'm) taking it one day at a time right now, Ward said. "Basically the trainer said it looked good. Got an x-ray and everything panned out right."
Ward's injury had no bearing on San Francisco's evaluation of him coming out of Northern Illinois. "Our doctors feel that he will be good to go, ready to go at the start of training camp," said Jim Harbaugh the night Ward was taken with the 30th selection in last month's draft.
Ward's selection meant the 49ers addressed safety in the first round of the draft in consecutive seasons. If he pans out as well as 2013's first-round pick Eric Reid - who earned Pro-Bowl recognition as an alternate in his rookie campaign - San Francisco would be thrilled.
The difference, however, is Ward won't be asked to play his natural position of safety right away. Instead, he will compete to replace Carlos Rogers as the team's nickel cornerback, which has evolved into a very important role for NFL defenses. Rogers - along with his $6.6 million cap figure - was released this spring and since signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Raiders.
The 49ers added a fifth defensive back on the field roughly 60 percent of the time in 2013 as the league continues to be driven by talented quarterbacks and the passing game. And because their defense has been so good against the run in base situations (three defensive linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs), opposing offenses have tried to spread the defense out by adding an additional receiver. Adding that third wideout forces the defense to replace a lineman with a defensive back, ostensibly making it easier to run the ball.
The 49ers expect Ward's background as a safety will help against the run when he's covering the slot close to the line of scrimmage. In college, he spent much of his time covering the opposition's best receiving threat while still filling the gaps against the run.
"(Ward) has an instinct for reacting to plays before anybody else sees them," Harbaugh said. "Just a step ahead of the rest of the defense and covers a lot of ground. Covers up a lot of holes."
During Ward's absence from OTAs, fourth-year corner Perrish Cox has seen the majority of reps at nickel with the first team. It's a role he's familiar with after playing it during the first two games of last year's playoffs while Rogers was out recovering from an injured hamstring suffered in the regular season finale against the Arizona Cardinals. He beat out Eric Wright for the job, who also returned to San Francisco in 2014. Both players signed one-year deals early in the offseason.
But while Cox is focusing on refining his play there, he also knows it's his job to help teach Ward - and second-year corner Darryl Morris - the finer points of the position.
For Cox, his ticket to make the team could depend on his continued development at the nickel position. He played well there both in coverage and against the run in Green Bay and Carolina before Rogers returned for the NFC Championship Game.
"They've both been calling me asking what's this and what's that because I know a little bit more than they do, but I help out as much as I can," said Cox. "Both of those guys are still young players. I just help out the best way that I can."
At this point, the difficulty for Ward lies in his inability to practice at full speed during OTAs. During the sessions, he warms up with his teammates and then heads to the side field and weight room when positional and team drills start.
It's forced the first-year player to work on other things during his long days at the facility.
"Just basically watching a lot of film right now. I can be more mental than physical…when I actually get on the field I know everything I have to do," Ward said.
"He gets in more when we're doing walkthroughs…that's when he's asking more questions and he's more into the defense," said Cox. "You run a play on the field on the field and come to the sideline, and he asks you "what happened on this play? What were you looking at?" I just tell him to play with an open mind frame…Don't try to take in too much and you'll be good from there."
Also helping Ward's transition to the NFL has been Reid and veteran free agent Antoine Bethea - whom Ward might be replacing in the coming seasons. The 49ers signed the strong safety Bethea to a four-year, $21 million deal at the start of free agency after losing Donte Whitner to a more lucrative deal with the Browns. Bethea turns 30 in July while his contract includes a modest $5 million in guarantees allowing the team the option to cut him loose early in the deal if Ward can earn a starting safety job.
For now, Ward's focusing mostly on nickel position, where he could make an impact right away as a rookie. But he also continues to work with secondary coach Ed Donatell on learning safety. In the earliest stages of his development as an NFL player, Ward's doing the best he can to be mentally prepared before training camp that's slated to start July 23.
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