SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The 49ers used a first-round pick on Jimmie Ward in 2014 because they saw the need for a versatile defensive back that could play in the slot.
It's an important position, because as the NFL has turned into more and more of a passing league, multiple pass catchers would be on the field, and those guys need to be covered. At the same time, teams like the Seahawks like to spread defenses out and take advantage of extra defensive backs by attacking with a physical running game led by Marshawn Lynch.
Ward, with a background as a safety at Northern Illinois, was deemed to be a good fit. He spent his collegiate career covering opponents' best receiver and tight ends, while also playing close to the line of scrimmage at times to help stop the run. The 49ers had just released Carlos Rogers, and needed a long-term replacement to fill the role of nickel corner.
But after he sustained a second Jones fracture in two seasons midway through his rookie year - his first came leading up to the 2014 draft - Ward is battling to take his spot back. Tramaine Brock, arguably San Francisco's top corner, wants to play nickel. Ward hasn't taken reps there through the first two-plus weeks of training camp. He returned to team drills for the first time Tuesday, working at safety with the third team.
"It’s competition. It’s football," Ward said. "If you can take the spot, you can have it. I’m just out there trying to fit my way in somewhere and help the defense."
If Ward doesn't win his spot back, the 49ers will likely have two of their most recent first-round picks in back-up roles. That's been a rarity for general manager Trent Baalke since taking over the draft room in 2010, when he found two immediate starters in the first round of the draft in offensive linemen Anthony Davis (retired) and left guard Mike Iupati (signed with Arizona). In 2011, Baalke used the seventh pick on Aldon Smith, who had 14 sacks as a rookie. And in 2013, safety Eric Reid started Week 1 and ended up making the Pro Bowl.
This year's top pick, Arik Armstead, has some work to do if he wants playing time among the team's talented group of defensive linemen.
"We just want to take it slow," Ward said. "(I'm) just listening to the trainers right now. Not pushing it. We’re just trying to get to game one. It’s just the second preseason game."
Ward has been wearing a custom "turtle" shell that clamps his surgically repaired foot inside his cleat. It's made of plastic and has cushioning to give comfort to the area where the surgery took place. Part of his delayed comeback has been adjusting to running around with the shell on his foot.
But Brock is also working his way back from an injury-plagued season. He appeared in just three games last year after sustaining a big toe injury in the first quarter of the season opener, before dealing with ankle and hamstring issues later in the season.
For Brock, coordinator Eric Mangini's new aggressive defense fits him well, and he thinks he's a good fit to play in the slot as he enters his sixth season.
"I always wanted to play it, but the defensive coordinators in the past, they didn’t want me in the slot. They wanted other guys there," Brock said. "They didn’t give me the chance or the opportunity, but now they’ve given me the opportunity to play it."
Whether it's Ward or Brock at nickel, the 49ers won't have much experience at the position. Perrish Cox, who replaced Rogers in the slot in the 2013 playoffs, left for the Titans in free agency this offseason. Dontae Johnson, who spent the most time replacing Ward in the slot after his injury, has been working exclusively on the outside so far in training camp.
"We got a lot of talent and competition going on. And we’re just all competing for the spot," Brock said. "Me, my mindset is to be the number one corner, and I’m trying to win the nickel job too."
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