2017 was supposed to be the year Jimmie Ward finally slotted in to his natural position for the 49ers. Coming out of Northern Illinois he was considered a natural center fielder but Ward’s first assignment was nickel corner. After a move to the outside in his third season, the 49ers new Cover 3 defense was supposed to see Ward flourish in a marriage of scheme and position fit.
The season ended, however, with two familiar words: injured reserve. Ward has played just 42 of his first 64 games, with broken bones prematurely ending 3 of his first 4 seasons. Ward’s last injury forced the 49ers to shuffle the defensive backfield and eventually opened the door for the emergence of Adrian Colbert, a 7th round draft pick, at free safety.
Performance peaks and valleys define Ward’s career. His NFL christening against Brandon Marshall on Monday Night Football is burned into fan’s collective memory. Less known, but equally as important, is the three game stretch of 2015 where Ward was one of the NFL’s best corners. Add the constant position and scheme switching and you have a 2018 that doesn’t look promising.
Age: 26 (but you can wish him a 27th birthday on July 18th.)
Experience: 4 accrued seasons
Weight: 192 lbs.
Ward is playing on the 5th year option of his rookie deal. The first four years of Ward’s deal came in at a total value of $7.1 million dollars. His 2018 option is worth $8.5 million and is now fully guaranteed as he was on the roster on the first day of the NFL league year.
How he might improve in 2018
Step 1: Crush up a bunch of calcium pills and blend them in those smoothies Ahkello Witherspoon drank in the
Step 2: Beat out K’Waun Williams for the nickel corner role. Ward’s best season was 2015 when he earned an overall PFF grade of 77 playing primarily from the slot. If Ward can take improved coverage to his already fantastic tackling efficiency he may be able to put together his peak season to date. Williams, the incumbent, had a strong end to the season and finished with an overall PFF grade of 80and he has history with defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. If Ward is going to be a starter in 2018 it will assuredly be in the slot.
How he might regress in 2018
If Jimmie Ward remains healthy and rides the pine all year it won’t be a regression so much as a disappointment. The other alternative is that he plays in at least 16 games for just the second time in his career and isn’t able to sustain the flashes he’s shown throughout his career. Both seal the deal on Ward’s career in San Francisco.
Odds of making the roster
Ward is definitely making the team but he may have to remind people he exists, again, barring an injury to a starter. Injuries are a way of life in the NFL so having a versatile backup certainly isn’t a bad thing. Given the 49ers propensity to trade away players that no longer fit it’s entirely possible Ward is with another team before the trade deadline. The final scenario might be best for all parties involved because an 8 million dollar bench warmer isn’t a desirable outcome for anyone.