The San Francisco 49ers signed defensive back Jimmie Ward to a 4-year contract on Thursday, and a notable part of the deal is the fifth year option. The current collective bargaining agreement dictates that all draft picks sign a 4-year contract, but teams hold an option on the fifth year of the deal. Assuming Ward is still on the team following the 2016 season, the 49ers will have between their final regular season game of the 2016 season and May 3, 2017 to decide whether or not to exercise the option.
The option salary will not be determined until after the 2016 season. The salary for the option is decided in one of two ways. For first round picks selected in the top ten, the fifth year salary is equal to the Transition tender that applies in the fourth year of the rookie's contract for players at the same position. The transition tender is the average of the top ten players at that position. For picks 11-32, the option year salary is the same, except instead of the average of the top ten salaries, it is the average of salaries 3-25.
Earlier this year, the 49ers exercised their fifth year option on outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Although Smith played defensive end in college, and a lot of nickel defensive end his rookie year, he transitioned to full-time outside linebacker in years two and three. The 49ers play a good deal of nickel, but they play enough of their base 3-4 that there was no real challenge on the tender.
When Eric Reid comes up for his option year in a couple years, he will clearly be a safety. He was drafted to replace Dashon Goldson, and I see no way he's not playing safety the rest of his contract. He might switch to strong safety at some point, but the transition tender is for all safeties, not specific types of safeties.
As Cam Inman pointed out, Jimmie Ward could prove to be an interesting case to track. He was announced as a safety, but all indications are that his first role with the 49ers will be as the nickel back. The team signed Antoine Bethea to a 4-year deal, but it looks like the team has some options for getting out of the deal after two years. Both Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke talked about Ward working at nickel, but also getting a chance to learn at safety. If I had to guess, I could see Ward playing nickel the first two years, and then potentially moving to safety alongside Eric Reid in 2016. It's entirely possible he moves there at some point in 2015 if they think he can replace Bethea, but I think conservatively, I'll say 2016.
The option salary for a cornerback is noticeably higher than that of a safety. This year, the cornerback transition tender is $10,081,000, while the safety tender is $7,253,000. The option salary for picks 11-32 is different because of the use of the 3-25 salaries, but I think you get where I'm going with this. Safeties make less than cornerbacks for the most part.
If Ward makes the switch to full-time safety in 2016 (or earlier), it's clear he'd get the safety tender. But what if the 49ers get fancy, and move him to safety while still using him at times to cover slot receivers? It's not too hard to figure out given that it is based on where he "participated in the most plays during his third League year", but it will be something to watch.