The 49ers have spent the past four weeks evaluating the roster general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan inherited.
Lynch, a nine-time Pro Bowl safety and Hall of Fame finalist, not surprisingly has spent a lot of time looking at the players the 49ers have at the position he played.
In the new Seattle-based defensive scheme under new coordinator Robert Saleh, the 49ers will play a lot of single-high safety. They are looking for someone who can track the ball and make plays in center field.
Lynch said the 49ers will certainly consider moving Jimmie Ward back to the deep middle after he started 10 games last season at right cornerback. He missed four starts with a quad injury and was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
“Just being completely honest, we think he’s a good scheme fit for what we’re doing at the free-safety position,” Lynch said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
“But we don’t know that until you put him there. It’s projecting. We think his traits, his skills, translate very well to that, but it’s such an instinct position, I think you really have to give him – and we’re kind of excited – to give him an offseason to say, ‘Let’s give this a go.’”
Ward saw action exclusively as the 49ers’ nickel back in his first two seasons after the organization selected him with the No. 30 overall selection in the 2014 draft.
Lynch said the 49ers will strongly consider Ward to be primarily a safety, but he could also see action in other spots, too.
“That doesn’t preclude him from playing nickel in some situations, or moving around,” Lynch said. “I think he brings some great versatility. But that is something we’re exploring and we will explore this offseason.”
Ward played four seasons at Northern Illinois, where he was used in a variety of roles. He recorded four career interceptions (three as a junior, one as a sophomore) and broke up 10 passes .
“Frankly, I haven’t watched a lot of his college tape because I wasn’t doing this then,” Lynch said. “I will. Right now, we’ve been just studying him for what he’s done the last couple of years on the 49ers. We’re excited about what he brings to us as a player wherever he’s playing.”
The 49ers believe Jaquiski Tartt has a chance to fit well into the new scheme. Tartt (6 foot 1, 221 pounds) started 14 of the 30 games in which he appeared in his first two NFL seasons. Under the previous defensive coordinators, Eric Mangini and Jim O’Neil, the system asked the safeties to perform a wide array of functions. The new defense is designed to accentuate the strengths the safeties without asking them to do too much, which should enable Tartt to play to his strengths.
If the 49ers pattern their defense after Seattle's, Ward would play a style similar to Earl Thomas, while Tartt could potentially fill the role of Kam Chancellor.
Eric Reid, who is scheduled to play under the fifth-year option this season, has started all 57 games in which he appeared over the past four seasons since being the No. 18 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Veteran Antoine Bethea is also currently on the 49ers’ depth chart at safety. Bethea, who turns 33 in July, is an 11-year veteran who was the 49ers’ leader with 110 tackles last season.