As the San Francisco 49ers approach free agency, John Lynch has to look over his roster to decide on not only which free agents he would like to bring back but which players Kyle Shanahan’s squad could survive without heading into the future. According to the staff at Pro Football Focus, the one player the Niners need to prioritize retaining is none other than Jimmie Ward, the team’s do-it-all defensive back and longest-tenured player.
“Ward’s versatility was on full display down the stretch of the 2022 season, as he became the primary slot cornerback for the 49ers with Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson Sr. at safety,” PFF’s staff wrote. “All he did was earn top-five grades both in coverage and as a run defender since Week 8 when aligning in the slot, with his 76.7 coverage grade fifth and his 91.3 run-defense grade tied for second among players with at least 100 snaps in the slot over the span.”
“The 49ers aren’t set to lose a ton to free agency, which is crucial considering the roster is already loaded with big contracts and may soon add a $30 million per year pact for edge defender Nick Bosa to the ledger.”
Would the 49ers like to find a way to retain Ward? Potentially so, but according to the career-safety himself, the team will likely be just fine regardless of what color jersey he wears in 2023.
Jimmie Ward Sounds Eager to Test NFL Free Agency
Speaking with Ward, a two-year 49ers captain, about his forthcoming free agency period on January 29, David Lombardi of The Athletic shared on Twitter that while the Northern Illinois product is excited to test the open market, he feels the 49ers will be a good team regardless of where he ends up signing.
Jimmie Ward: “I’m good at safety and I’m good at nickel. I’m a good football player, so it’s going to help me in free agency.” I asked Ward if he was open to returning to the 49ers and he said “yes”, but he also worded other sentences as if he won’t be part of team next season
“I feel like the 49ers are going to have a great team next year and years to come. They’ve got some great players in this building and a great coaching staff, great GM, great owner. They know what they’re doing. So I’m pretty sure they’re going to be in this position next year.”
With a projected expected contract $15.23 million over two years according to Spotrac, which feels a tad low considering he’s currently playing on a deal with an average salary of $9.5 million, the 49ers would theoretically be able to retain Ward if they want with only minimal contractual maneuvering. Whether they value his services over those of, say, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, however, remains to be seen.
49ers Won’t be the Only Team Interested in Jimmie Ward
With the 2022 NFL season officially over, Matt Barrows of The Athletic wrote profiles on the 49ers’ impending free agents and named Ward one of the team’s most compelling options around the NFL.
“It was an odd season for Ward,” Barrows wrote. “The league finally recognized his work as a free safety by putting him on the Top 100 list for the first time in his career. But when he returned from hamstring and hand injuries in Week 7, he was no longer a starting safety. The 49ers instead kept Tashaun Gipson Sr. in that spot and moved Ward to nickel cornerback. He excelled in that role, especially in the playoffs, but he likely wants to return to safety, which is an every-down role and is valued more highly in free agency. Some wise defensive coordinator ought to pair Ward, 31, with a young safety. The Texans’ Jalen Pitre might look even better with Ward by his side.”
Referencing the Houston Texans? It’s almost like Barrows, like most 49ers fans, know that DeMeco Ryans’ new defense is a few starters short of being up to his usual standards and the former San Francisco defensive coordinator may opt to turn to his former team for familiar faces to fill those roles in 2023. With $37.6 million in cap space to play with Ryans and the Texans’ GM, Nick Caserio, able to field competitive offers for any player the 49ers allow to hit the open market, the prospects of using the franchise tag on a player they like becomes a very real possibility.