Remember when Jimmie Ward came to the 49ers, back in 2014? This was during the Jim Harbaugh days, when the team was realistically aiming for a sixth Lombardi trophy, and they were actually playing respectable football after a few years in the wilderness under Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary and Jim Tomsula. Ward, so we were all told, was going to be the key to the new 49ers’ secondary; he had done wonders at Northern Illinois, and was described by NFL.com as a
“wiry, active, aggressive strong safety at his best playing downhill and reacting to plays in front him, yet possesses the cover skill to range over the top or lock down defenders in the slot.”
The part a lot of Niners fans failed to read in that draft profile was the next sentence:
“[Ward’s] ability to stay healthy in the future given lack of size and durability is the biggest concern.”
Well, we’re now four seasons removed from Ward’s arrival in Baghdad by the Bay, and the former first round draft pick has been…not quite living up to expectations, in the eyes of this author and many other fans and analysts.
Take his performances on the field, to begin with. Harbaugh played Ward as a nickel corner, despite the fact that most football observers thought he was a natural safety. Ward gave up three touchdown catches to then-Bears wideout Brandon Marshall in his second game as a pro. He made a grand total of four tackles in that game and would never make a higher number of them the rest of the year (for reasons I’ll go into shortly).
2015 was a much better year for Ward (57 combined tackles, six pass deflections, a sack, an interception, and one touchdown). Most observers thought he had broken through and was on his way to superstardom. But even then, Ward was playing the backup free safety to Eric Reid, and only started in 8 games. (Somehow, being a backup and only starting half the season has never struck me as a performance worthy of a first-round draft pick.)
In 2016, Chip Kelly decided to put Ward at cornerback full-time, and although he put up decent numbers again (53 combined tackles, 12 pass deflections, a sack, and an interception in ten starts), his performance came in the midst of a dismal 2-14 record.
Last season, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh switched Ward back to his original position of free safety — if you’ve lost count, that’s three different positions, four head coaches, and four defensive coordinators in four seasons. For reasons which will soon become evident, Ward’s numbers plummeted in 2017:
- 32 combined tackles (27 solo)
- 1 pass deflection in six starts and seven games.
- Pro Football Focus gave him a overall grade of 46.9 (poor)
- ranking him 77th among all qualified safeties in 2017.
So, by the numbers, Jimmie Ward hasn’t exactly blown anyone out of the water as a 49er. He’s had one interception each of the past two seasons, but the pass breakups have been inconsistent (if impressive), and because he’s had to switch positions and learn new schemes over and over again, he has been off balance and unsure of his role. But that’s not the biggest reason Ward may be facing his last year in San Francisco.
The major knock on Ward, and one that is well documented, is his proneness to injury. Ward suffered a Jones fracture in his foot during his rookie season (missing 8 games); a quad injury and a clavicle fracture in 2016 (missed 5 games); a hamstring injury and a fractured forearm last season (missed 9 more games). Add it all up, and Ward has played just 42 of his first 64 games, with broken bones prematurely ending 3 of his first 4 seasons. Again, this doesn’t seem to be what we draft players in the first round for (although Ward certainly didn’t injure himself on purpose).
This year, Ward is at the end of his contract — the 49ers exercised the fifth year option on him — and he has guaranteed money. However, his future isn’t quite as secure; he has to beat out K’Waun Williams for the nickel corner role, and Williams is the same age as Ward (and has a higher PFF rating). Maybe the competition from Williams will force Ward to step up his game. Maybe not.
I see one of three outcomes for Jimmie Ward this year. Either he outperforms Williams and gets the nickel corner role to himself; or he gets hurt again and becomes an IR candidate (I suppose he could be waived/injured too); or he becomes Williams’ backup and is traded away.
If Jimmie Ward wants to really leave a lasting mark on the 49ers’ legacy, he is going to have to be healthier than ever before this year, and shatter his own personal best for on-field performance. He will never get a better chance to do either with this coaching staff and the team he has around him. Will he come though? The lines are open. Teach is taking your calls.