O'Neil: Ward one of 49ers' top 11 defensive players


SANTA CLARA – Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has already figured out that Jimmie Ward is one of the 49ers’ better players.

Now, it’s a matter of figuring out where he should lineup. Ward made two starts at safety last season. Last week, Ward lined up at right cornerback and will continue to practice at cornerback this week, O’Neil said.

“We don’t know what Jimmie’s going to be right now,” O’Neil said Wednesday the 49ers hit the practice field for another day of organized team activities.

“I know he’s one of our best 11. That I do know. We’re trying to find ways to get our best 11 on the field. So far what he’s shown now on the practice field, I’m confident he could be out there (at cornerback). He’ll continue to be out there this week.”

O’Neil said he was impressed with Ward’s athletic ability and his football knowledge.

“He’s a guy I know we have to get on the field,” O’Neil said.

Here are some other topics O’Neil addressed during his first session with reporters since joining Chip Kelly’s staff:

--O’Neil introduced a new name into the mix at the competition for the starting job next to inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman.

“It’s a three-man race right now,” O’Neil said. “The way we’re doing it, we have nine OTAs. Everybody’s going to get three starts. So Ray-Ray Armstrong is going to get three, Mike Wilhoite is going to get three, and Gerald Hodges is going to get three.

“We probably won’t know, given the nature of that position, who’s going to win it until we get the pads on. I’m very comfortable with any one of those guys. And if all three of them deserve to play, all of them will play.”

--Tank Carradine will be “living” in the meeting rooms of both the outside linebackers and defensive linemen, O’Neil said. Carradine will be working at outside linebacker on early downs and play on the edge as a defensive end on passing downs.

--Kelly has attended every installation meeting for the defense. O’Neil said he wants the defense to complement the team’s offense. Ideally, O’Neil sees opposing offenses becoming more predictable because of the pace of the 49ers’ offense.

“Obviously, we’re going to go fast, so teams for us (will) try to run the ball a little bit more to wind the clock and keep their defense off the field,” O’Neil said.

--O’Neil said the 49ers are building a strong mental and physical foundation. The three things he stresses are playing relentlessly, being accountable and being productive.

--He said he has been impressed with safeties Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid. He said those players are further ahead than other safeties he’s coached in their first seasons in the scheme.

--Rookie defensive lineman DeForest Buckner is versatile enough to be a difference-maker in the run game and the pass game. Fellow rookie Ronald Blair is working with the defensive line.

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