It now begins on the morning after the NFC title game: What does the future hold for some prominent members of the San Francisco 49ers now that their season has come to a closure.
Among those players is one who is at the end of his three-year, $28.5 million deal and one who became beloved as a coverage defender and leader: Jimmie Ward.
Ward immediately sounded off on his 49ers future with reporters following the 31-7 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, January 29. Does he see himself in the Bay Area for 2023?
Ward paused, but brought his shoulders up and gave this one word response: “Yeah.”
However, he’s aware this may be the end of a run for him in the Bay Area with him becoming a unrestricted free agent come March. And if it’s the end, he’s leaving a franchise that’s brought division titles, a Super Bowl run and back-to-back appearances in the NFC Championship game during his time there…and believes the best is still yet to come for the 49ers.
“I feel like the 49ers are going to have a great team next year and years to come,” Ward said. “They’ve got some great players in this building, a great coaching staff, a great GM, and a great owner. They know what they’re doing. I’m pretty sure they’re going to be in this position next year as well.”
Impact of Ward Plus Who Could Fill His Role if he Leaves
Ward may not have been a household name in the NFL or even on the league’s No. 1 defense. But he established himself as a prominent coverage defender and locker room voice — especially for the younger 49er defensive backs.
Deommodore Lenoir, who became the 49ers’ top ball-hawk with two interceptions during the postseason, told Ward’s Ex-49ers teammate and Super Bowl winner with Seattle Richard Sherman that Ward became a “big brother” type figure for him on the 49ers defense.
And with Ward in the defensive backfield, the 49ers pass defense became among the best at limiting the aerial yards. Ward ended up surrendering 52 catches for 473 yards his side per Pro Football Reference Advanced Stats and only had one game that saw him allow 101 yards his side (against the Las Vegas Raiders). All other games saw Ward hold opposing targets to less than 47 yards in his 12 games he played. He also went on to deliver a career-best three interceptions. And Ward did it while playing both nickel cornerback and safety.
If Ward does walk, he’ll leave the nickel and strong safety spot open for competition. The 49ers already have their safety of the future in Pro Bowler Talanoa Hufanga. But the 49ers also face a tough decision with fellow safety Tashaun Gipson, who’s contract expires as well this offseason. And Gipson, 32, delivered his best season since his Pro Bowl year of 2014 with the Cleveland Browns by snatching five interceptions and delivering 61 tackles in 17 starts.
Ward Answers How he Wants to be Remembered by 49ers Fans
Ward was then asked this next tough question: “If this is it, what do you want people to remember you as, as a 49er?”
The veteran of nine seasons with the team gave off a slight smile, but paused for five seconds before finally giving his answer.
“Man, that’s a tough question,” he admitted.
But then he found his response: “A great team player because I think that’s who I was and that’s what I was. That was my role here. And I think I took advantage of that. I feel like I made plays wherever they put me, and I dealt with injuries all throughout my career and I bounced back — resilience at its finest. I proved a lot of doubters wrong. I’m still going to prove more doubters wrong. It’s just who I am as a person.”
Ward does have a backer on the 49ers with whatever happens next: All-Pro inside linebacker Fred Warner:
Watched the 49ers post game show after the “D” had their worse game. A reporter approached Ward and told him that the ball Smith was credited for catching wasn’t a catch. And another call on him was the wrong call. I couldn’t believe his reaction and then his big smile and how happy he was. He stood there and gloaded about himself and how great he played. Anyone with that kind of reaction isn’t considered a team player. Telling the reporters that he had a perfect game. Get rid of him and his ego with a sign and trade deal. I’ll never look at him again with any respect! Is it go Niners? Or jimmy forget the loss and worry about yourself. After a team loss like that I’ll never forget how happy he was!