There’s an important question facing defensive coordinator Robert Saleh with just over two weeks remaining before the 49ers’ season opener.
Who’s going to start at free safety?
It’s arguably the most important position in the secondary – the last line of defense the team calls “the eraser” that can make up for mistakes elsewhere, like missed tackles or broken coverages.
The two candidates to fill that role are at different points of their careers. Tarvarius Moore, the converted cornerback drafted in 2018’s third round, appears to be ascending and has practiced with the starters since the first week of training camp. Moore intercepted Jimmy Garoppolo twice during last week’s five-pick frenzy and added another interception during the joint practices with the Broncos.
The other contender is Jimmie Ward, the well-respected veteran in the locker room who has missed time with five broken bones since entering the NFL in 2014, including a fractured collar bone suffered May.
Ward has been back on the practice field over the past two weeks, though he was withheld from team drills in Denver. The 49ers’ two practices this week are expected to be light before traveling to play Kansas City in the third preseason game Saturday. The same is likely true next ahead of the exhibition finale.
Which all means Ward will have to earn back his starting role without all the padded practices that Moore used to enter the conversation. The 49ers had 16 high-intensity practices before Wednesday’s pared-down session.
“For Jimmie, it’s no different than as if it was the first day of camp,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Wednesday.
“He’s got to go show that he’s ready for action. Not saying that he needs to do it now, but over the next couple of weeks he just has to continue to accelerate the way we know that he will. We think very highly of Jimmie, so it’ll be good to see him out there over the next couple of weeks.”
Ward started four games at free safety in 2018 after moving from cornerback when former starter Adrian Colbert suffered a season-ending high ankle sprain in October.
Ward is highly thought of by his coaches and teammates for his production and work ethic. He’s among a small group of players that stuck around during three coaching changes since Jim Harbaugh’s final campaign, though many commonly point to his lengthy injury history as a significant demerit.
“Jimmie Ward has the utmost respect out of everyone in this locker room,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “He’s shown that he can play at a high level in this league and on this team. I have no worries about him being ready to go when he’s back.”
The availability concerns for Ward are real. He appeared in more than nine games just once in his five seasons, which led to signing a one-year prove-it contract in the spring when he reached free agency.
Ward believes his play speaks for itself and is more concerned about staying on the field than X’s and O’s.
“Really just stay healthy, that’s my only concern,” Ward said. “... Then when I get back out there on the field, everything else is going to take care of itself.”
The 49ers moved Moore to his natural position of safety in the spring after an uneven rookie campaign in which he was converted to cornerback. General manager John Lynch in Denver said Moore appears more comfortable facing the quarterback rather than having his back to the passer and focusing on receiver coverage.
“Playing safety all my life, it was natural, it just feels natural,” Moore said. “And then when I went to corner, it was different, it definitely was a challenge. But I was just trying to work through it.”
Moore’s 123 snaps were more than any other 49ers defender during the first two preseason games, which should give the coaching staff a clear indication of his knowledge of his responsibilities.
He’s gotten more playing time than expected because Colbert was ejected in the preseason opener for an illegal hit after a handful of snaps. He left Monday’s game with a hamstring injury after playing only special teams.
“T-Moore has stepped up and done a great job,” Saleh said, “and he’s earned the right to be part of the discussion.”
That discussion remains ongoing.
Good news for offensive front
The 49ers got two of their top options at right guard back on the practice field Wednesday, which is an encouraging development for Garoppolo after the offensive line struggled during his poor performance Monday night.
Mike Person (foot) and Joshua Garnett (dislocated finger) practiced, which could move Najee Toran, Monday’s starter, down to third string. When top center Weston Richburg returns, which could be next week, Toran might become a fourth-stringer, with Ben Garland sliding into a reserve role.
Others who returned to practice: tight end Levine Toilolo (shoulder), defensive tackle D.J. Jones (knee), defensive end Ronald Blair III (groin) and defensive back Antone Exum Jr. (knee).
▪ Prominent players that didn’t practice included Dee Ford (knee tendinitis) and tight end George Kittle (calf). Kyle Shanahan hinted this week that Ford could be back on the practice field Thursday, though the team might continue to rest him until next week given the light nature of these practices before the trip to play the Chiefs.
Kittle has indicated his injury is minor and he could play if it were the regular season. The 49ers seem to be handling Kittle with extreme caution.
▪ Colbert missed practice after sustaining his hamstring injury Monday. Jaquiski Tartt was excused from Wednesday’s practice for a personal matter.
▪ The 49ers on Wednesday signed three players that could get playing time over the final two preseason games: tackle Andrew Lauderdale, safety Tyree Robinson and receiver Chris Thompson, who have all spent time with the team previously.
▪ Offensive tackle Christian DiLauro and running back Brandon Wilds were waived. Undrafted receiver Shawn Poindexter, who suffered a significant knee injury Monday night, was waived/injured.