Ward spills beans on Shanahan's threat to be 49ers' nickel back

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Jimmie Ward might have been the 49ers' most important defensive back this season due to his versatility, as he pivoted from being the team's starting safety to taking the nickel back role in the secondary.

That clearly was not Ward's first choice.

Ward, set to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, revealed Tuesday night on Instagram the story of when 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan made it crystal clear the 31-year-old defensive back had no other option than to play nickel in the 49ers' defense.

"I said, 'Hey Coach Kyle, put me back at my position. I want to play safety,' " Ward said. "He looked back and was like, ‘What do you want to do, dude? Do you want to ride the bench?'

"I was like, ‘Oh, s--t.' This man just told me do I want to ride the bench. Knowing me, I said, ‘Yeah, just put me on special teams because I’d be a good special teams player.”

Ward chuckled as he recounted the exchange.

"Bro, he told me, ‘Do you want to ride the bench?’ He let me know right there my spot was gone."

Ward, in his ninth season with the 49ers, suffered a hamstring injury before Week 1 and missed the first four games of the season. He returned in Week 5, only to break a bone in his hand in the first quarter of the 49ers' 37-15 win over the Carolina Panthers. 

When it was clear Ward would miss time early in the season, San Francisco signed veteran safety Tashaun Gipson to start opposite Talanoa Hufanga at safety. Gipson played well enough for Shanahan and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans opt to use Ward at nickel back than be Gipson's backup.

Shanahan sang Ward's praises throughout the season as the veteran learned the ins and outs of a new position.

“He’s really worked at it," Shanahan said of Ward in early January. "He’s put in a lot of time. He practices every single day; he does walkthrough the exact same way he does full-speed stuff.

"It’s a huge credit to him and the coaching staff with just how far he’s come learning that position and how talented he’s always been and enough to play it."

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In 12 games this season, Ward tallied 50 tackles, five passes defensed and a career-high three interceptions. He was targeted 71 times in coverage and yielded a measly 87.4 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks.

Playing nickel back might not have been Ward's preference, but his versatility in the secondary will only help his case to land a lucrative contract in free agency, whether that is with San Francisco or elsewhere.

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