When the San Francisco 49ers took a swing in free agency to sign then-Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward it was not without risk. Sure, Ward was considered one of the best free agents on the market at the time, falling just behind eventual Los Angeles Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson on free agency rankings, but whenever a player jumps from one team to another, there’s a chance the fit just doesn’t work.
Fortunately, it would appear that such a fate hasn’t befallen the Niners, as, according to Kyle Shanahan in an interview with Nick Wagoner of ESPN, the 26-year-old cover man has been a hit.
“That’s what we hoped he could be,” Shanahan said of their desire for Ward to be their top corner. “I think that’s so hard in free agency. We’ve kind of looked at that almost every year. And when you get into free agency, the money gets so high, and his did too, but to see the player with that money we thought it would be worth it. … It took us awhile to be able to do that, but when you do take a swing, you hope you hit and I really feel like we have.”
DeMeco Ryans echoed his boss’s sentiments, complementing Ward’s efforts while heaping some praise of his own on the fifth-year-pro.
“He’s been everything that we could have hoped for,” Ryans said. “He’s really challenged guys to become better. … You don’t know when you get guys in free agency because it’s different from the draft process where you’re interviewing and you’re spending a lot of time meeting with these guys. It’s different with the free-agent process, so we were lucky to get a great guy and a great player all in one.”
Ward Embraced the Challenge of Being the 49ers Top CB
Elsewhere in his piece on Ward, Wagoner asked the former Kanas City Chief about what enticed him about joining the 49ers in free agency. His answer boiled down to two things: opportunity and money.
“I always wanted to take on the challenge of being like CB1,” Ward said. “I don’t know if they viewed me as being that guy in Kansas City. … With the way they paid me [here], I’m pretty sure they wanted me to be CB1.”
Playing opposite Emmanuel Mosley before an ACL injury cost him the back half of the season, Ward has largely been tasked with filling that CB1 role and has played it well. According to Pro Football Focus, Ward ranks 10th in Defensive Grade out of 113 qualifying cornerbacks through the first nine weeks of the season, with just 279 yards and no touchdowns surrendered in coverage, per Pro Football Reference.
“I want to prove that I’m one of the best corners in the league,” Ward said. “I’m kind of like tired of flying under the radar, you know? I feel I’ve got some of the best cover skills in the NFL, and so I feel like I should be a Pro Bowl corner, maybe an All-Pro corner, if I keep on balling this year.”
Will Ward ultimately make the Pro Bowl? Only time will tell, but he’s certainly putting together an impressive case for it as a result.
The Charvarius Ward Signing Was Controversial at the Time
While Ward has earned the respect of his coaches and praise from advanced analytics for his on-field efforts in 2022, his signing wasn’t universally heralded when it was initially announced in March, with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn explicitly suggesting that the team should have signed Jackson from the New England Patriots instead.
He’s young — still only 25-years old — he’s big for a cornerback (6’1″, 195 lbs.), he has long arms, he’s a good tackler and he’s good in man-to-man coverage. He fits the 49ers’ cornerback profile perfectly. He essentially is a bigger Emmanuel Moseley, who will start opposite Ward. Both are former undrafted free agents who are good No. 2 cornerbacks.
THE NOT SO GOOD
Ineffective in zone coverage. Can’t play in the slot. Four picks in four career seasons. This signing shows the 49ers haven’t learned from their mistakes. Last season, the 49ers defense ranked fifth in sacks but just 26th in interceptions precisely because the front office doesn’t acquire defensive backs with ball skills. Doesn’t value ball skills. With all the resources the 49ers pour into their defensive line, they should rank much higher in interceptions. And they should want to intercept passes, because interceptions are turnovers and turnovers win games. Last season, the 49ers started Josh Norman for 14 games mostly because he forced 7 fumbles. Unfortunately for the 49ers, he had to give up a catch before he could try to force the fumble. Better to just intercept the pass. That’s why the 49ers should have signed J.C. Jackson, who has 25 interceptions in four seasons, but they let the Chargers sign him to a five-year deal worth $16.5 million annually. Which means he’s not much more expensive than Ward. The 49ers should have signed Jackson instead.
With Jackson currently on IR ahead of the Chargers’ game against the Niners in Week 10 following a tough start to the 2022 regular season, one has to wonder how free agency would shake out in 2023 if the duo were both on the open market once more.