When you have a turnaround like the San Francisco 49ers did and made the Super Bowl, you’re going to get some surprise performances on your roster. That was the case for the Niners in 2019. Everyone knew Nick Bosa was a star, and he didn’t disappoint. Deebo Samuel exceeded his already high expectations, while Dre Greenlaw blew his out of the water. Those are the rookies on the team. The number of players that stepped up in place of the 15+ Niners that went on injured reserve kept the team competitive.
Between everyone, who was the most improved player on the 49ers this past season? PFF believes it’s Jimmie Ward:
It’s hard to separate Ward’s career to this point from the injuries that have helped to define it. Prior to 2019, the last full season that Ward played was 2015. In addition to injuries slowing his progress, position changes have kept Ward from getting comfortable at any one spot on the San Francisco defense. He seemed to find his home last season, though, and he had a full year to show what he could do when healthy. Ward’s 84.9 overall grade ranked sixth among safeties, and he was also one of the 10 most valuable safeties in the league, per PFF WAR. As the team’s primary free safety, he played a big part in San Francisco’s league-leading deep coverage unit that allowed just 10 completions on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield, six fewer than any other NFL team. A big part of Ward’s improvement was simply staying healthy, and the 49ers or any other prospective teams will have to hope he can do so again in 2020.
I always wonder how Ahkello Witherspoon’s season turns out if he never gets injured. Witherspoon would have been the 49ers cornerback that made the second-team All-Pro team. It seemed as if ‘Spoon finally figured it out. Anyway, I’m not sure if Ward counts as improved, or this is just the player he is when healthy. Talent has never been an issue for the talented defensive back. Finding the best position for him and staying healthy is what was holding Jimmie back. Ward told me during Super Bowl media week that his favorite position was the “Honey Badger” role, but that isn’t where he was primarily used in 2019. Ward was the deep safety and the “eraser” in San Francisco’s defense. It’s not surprising to see he was that high in PFF’s WAR stat. Ward is a stud.
Who is your answer?