The San Francisco 49ers are making a change in defense, switching from their 3-4 of the past few years to a 4-3 defense similar to what the Seattle Seahawks run. The defense was used in Jacksonville under Gus Bradley, and continues to be used in Atlanta under Dan Quinn. Success varies depending on the personnel, but the 49ers are going to attempt to implement it.
The 49ers have some decisions to make as they maneuver personnel into new roles, and one of those will be what to do with Jimmie Ward. There has been talk in the media of using Ward in the Earl Thomas deep safety role. Kyle Shanahan has not commented on that yet, as he has only recently begun the deep film work needed to figure out the necessary adjustments.
This will all play into the 49ers upcoming decision with regard to Jimmie Ward’s fifth year option. The 49ers drafted Ward in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The CBA signed back in 2011 provides four year contracts to all draft picks, with a fifth year team option for first round picks. The team has to decide in the spring following the player’s fourth year.
The fifth year option is based on franchise and transition tag numbers. The top ten picks get the franchise tag numbers for their given position, while picks 11-32 usually get the transition numbers. The position is based on where they played the most snaps in season three of their contract.
This past season was Ward’s third year with the 49ers. Although he played a lot of safety in college, and was listed as a safety early in his 49ers career, he is a cornerback. He worked primarily in the slot as the nickel back his first two years, but became a starter this past year. If the 49ers elect to pick up his option, he will be paid the cornerback salary, not the safety salary.
A year ago, the 49ers picked up Eric Reid’s fifth year option, which will cover the 2017 season. The 49ers traded up to pick No. 18 to select him, and so his salary is based on the transition tender, using the third through 25th highest paid salaries at that position. His salary was $5,676,000. The salary was guaranteed for injury immediately, and becomes fully guaranteed on March 9 when the new league year starts.
In comparison, cornerbacks selected in picks 11-32 received a salary of $8,026,000. It is not a monstrous number as a transition tender, but it is still a sizable increase over the safety salary. We don’t have the option salaries yet for 2014 picks because they are based on what the salary cap ends up at next month.
The question then becomes what the 49ers are willing to pay Ward based on his role. General manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh are working on figuring out what will work best for their defense. If the new regime see Ward as a safety, rather than a cornerback in the new 4-3 system, they could decide it is not worth paying him option year safety money. However, given that he is one of the more talented players on the roster, they should work hard to extend him at a salary more akin to a safety’s role.
It’s hard to say what Ward’s value is, since he hasn’t played much safety since entering the NFL in 2014. If he ends up getting the 5th-year option picked up, he would be, as of now, the 8th highest paid safety, according to OverTheCap.com. That will change with Eric Berry set to hit free agency and likely due a heft salary.
If the new regime sees Ward as a cornerback, that makes picking up the option and letting him play out the fifth year a potentially easy decision. He would be the 19th highest paid cornerback, according to OverTheCap.com. That could change, as the New York Jets could void/release Darrelle Revis, while Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson is a free agent to be. Johnson was franchised last year, so he would be in line for a raise from his previous number.
The option is not fully guaranteed when exercised, but it does provide Ward a potential starting point for negotiations. Even if the 49ers move him to safety, he can point to the option cornerback salary as a reason to push back in negotiations. On the other hand, if the 49ers decline to pick up his option, they would have less time to get a deal done.
My gut feeling is Ward is moved to safety, where he is fits better in the 49ers new 4-3 defense, and the 49ers try to extend Ward this offseason. Ward could say no to an extension, and of course we also don’t know how Shanahan, Lynch, and Saleh view his role. However, with the option not fully guaranteed until a year from March, it would seem foolish to not pick it up and provide some extra wiggle room if needed. And if for some reason they decide he is not a good fit for the new defense, so be it.
It is also worth comparing him to Doug Martin in Tampa Bay and Mark Barron in Los Angeles. Both had their options declined, and then had big seasons, leading to big long term deals. Let us know in the comment section, do you believe Ward is a cornerback or a safety? Is he worth $8 million a year, or should the 49ers try to extend him sooner rather than later?