The San Francisco 49ers new coaching staff and front office have decisions to make for the 2017 NFL Draft, but they also have an important decision to make about a current roster member. The 49ers have until May 3rd, three weeks from yesterday, to decide whether or not to exercise Jimmie Ward’s fifth year option.
It’s an intriguing decision for a couple reasons. The first is the 49ers have a new coach and front office. They have tape on him, but the start of the offseason workout program this week is their first opportunity to work with him in any capacity. Right now coaches can only do classroom work. They’ll have a voluntary minicamp in two weeks, and will get a couple days of phase two workouts before the May 3rd deadline.
Where this gets particularly interesting is the fact that the 49ers are considering a position change for Ward. He played safety and nickel back in college, but has worked almost entirely as a cornerback in the NFL. He started as the team’s nickel back, but in 2016 he became one of the starting outside cornerbacks.
The team is now looking at him as a potential free safety. The option year contract value is based on the position at which the player participated in the most plays during his third league year. For Ward, that would be cornerback. His salary is based on draft position, with salaries set for top ten picks, and then the remaining picks 11-32. Under that parameter, the fifth year option for cornerbacks last year was $8,026,000. The option for safeties was $5,676,000.
The 49ers don’t have salary cap issues for the time being, so the difference is really not that big a deal. It is also worth noting that the salary is guaranteed for injury when exercised, but does not become fully guaranteed until the start of the new league year next March. So, if he is atrocious at safety, the 49ers could always release him and not owe him, assuming he’s healthy.
Injuries have been a concern thus far. He missed the last half of his rookie season after aggravating a foot injury. In 2016, he missed three games early in the season with a quadricep injury, and then went on injured reserve following a Week 15 shoulder injury. The severity of the latter injury was never fully known, but given how bad the team was and the timing of the injury, it is no surprise the team ended his season.
The injuries are a concern in terms of a contract extension, but for the fifth year option, it makes sense for the 49ers to pick it up. They have the cap space in 2018, and again, it’s not even fully guaranteed. This is the first year Ward is eligible for a contract extension, but I imagine the team wants to see what he can do at safety (or back at cornerback) before discussing any kind of extension. There is concern he could get hurt and have that fifth year become guaranteed, but other than that, I can’t really see any reason not to pick up the option at this point.