49ers camp battles: Who starts next to Ward at safety?

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There is no doubt that Jimmie Ward has the 49ers' starting free safety position locked down, but who plays next to him is another story entirely. 

The 49ers have several options when it comes to who will play in the box in front of Ward at strong safety. During OTAs, safeties coach Daniel Bullocks shared it will be an open competition for the role from a group that has shown promising traits during the offseason. 

Talanoa Hufanga stepped into the role as a rookie playing in 15 games, three as a starter. The USC product finished the season with 33 total tackles -- 24 solo, one for a loss. Hufanga also helped send the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game after recovering a blocked punt for a touchdown vs. the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round. 

Hufanga is a hard hitter and effective tackler similar to the style of Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu. This makes sense, as Hufanga works with the Pittsburgh Steelers alum during the offseason refining his craft as well as mental preparation. 

The second-year safety will be in direct competition with Tarvarius Moore, who missed the 2021 season after suffering an Achilles injury during a June offseason practice. Moore is entering his fifth year in the league, but due to an update to the collective bargaining agreement, the versatile safety is technically starting his fourth accrued season after a “red-shirt” injury year. 

Moore has appeared in 48 games over three seasons with the club, 13 as a starter. The Southern Miss product has racked up 100 career tackles -- 73 solo and forced two fumbles.

The advantage held by Moore could be his coverage skills, which his experience has helped him develop and sharpen. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans could find that an important factor for the player who will be lined up behind All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner. 

A dark horse to take over at strong safety next to Ward is veteran George Odum, who the club signed as a free agent during the offseason. The former Colts All-Pro defensive back was brought in primarily as a special teams standout, but could definitely make a run at a starting job on the defense. 

Through four seasons, Odum has appeared in 68 games, 10 as a starter and registered 154 tackles --113 solo, two interceptions and four forced fumbles. In 2020, Odum’s First Team All-Pro season, the safety led the league in special teams tackles (20).

RELATED: 49ers camp battles at center, right guard boils down to Brunskill

The 49ers signed two undrafted free agent safeties to round out the group -- San Diego State’s Tayler Hawkins and Texas A&M's Leon O’Neal. 

While it would be long shot for either of the two rookies to win a starting position in a group comprised of veterans, nothing is impossible. Both of the rookie safeties will be seen at camp competing and learning as much as possible as they get acclimated to life in the league.  

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