Looking back on the 49ers’ final loss in their 2021 season, one of their glaring pitfalls was their porous pass defense against Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. They are two of the premier receivers in the NFL. Still, the 49ers had no answer for them repeatedly on passing downs.
DeMeco Ryans’ defense was top-notch, and they didn’t have a dependable corner opposite of Emmanuel Moseley for the majority of the season. Rookie Ambry Thomas came along as the season went along, but I think the 49ers would ideally like to keep him as the third option in a cornerback room — not the starter on the outside.
As J.C. Jackson and Carlton Davis came off the board, all eyes shifted to Stephon Gilmore and Charvarius Ward as the next best outside corners on the free-agent market. But, by the end of Monday, the 49ers had a three-year deal in place with the former Chief.
Ward’s three-year deal is worth up to $42M, and he will be guaranteed $26.7M. The $14M annual average falls just outside the top-10 cornerbacks and is slightly lower than the deals dished out to Jackson and Davis.
The 26-year-old stands at 6-foot-1 and ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash coming out of college in 2018. That’s speed on the outside that the 49ers just haven’t reliably had to match up with the premier outside receivers in the NFL.
This past season, Ward allowed a completion rate of 45 percent, giving up 400 yards total, accounting for nine passes defended and nabbing two interceptions. The Middle Tennessee State product was routinely asked to defend the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver and rose to the challenge.
Ward only gave up 18 catches on 46 targets in man-to-man coverage, which was the second-best in the NFL this past season. Ward is also a solid tackler, only missing 5.3 percent of tackles last season, which was the eighth-lowest rate among corners in the NFL.
The best part — Ward only accounted for two defensive pass interference penalties, something that plagued the pass defense early in the season.
He’s not in the elite tier of shut-down corners but is in the second tier of solid starters who can be versatile in any scheme.
So what does this mean for the 49ers’ defense in 2022?
Ryans finally has two starting-level veteran corners that he can depend on in man coverage on the outside in Ward and Emmanuel Moseley.
It also gives the 49ers a good amount of option power. They can either roll with Ward and Moseley on the outside and sign a veteran nickel corner in replacement of K’Waun Williams.
They can also use Ward and Moseley on the outside for base downs and then slide Moseley inside and put Ambry Thomas on the outside for nickel downs.
This splashy move also allows the 49ers to bring back Jason Verrett at a team-friendly rate, allowing him to get fully healthy and see what they have in him. If he’s healthy and playing well, it makes for a good problem.
When the 49ers’ defense was at their best in 2020 — it was with Moseley and Verrett manning the outside. John Lynch looked to replicate that with a younger, healthier version in Charvarius Ward, who’s played at least 900 snaps the last three seasons.
It should also allow the 49ers to play more man coverage in 2022. Thirty-four percent of Ward’s snaps were in man coverage, which was the 17th-highest rate among qualifying corners. For comparison sake, Emmanuel Moseley only played man coverage 22 percent of the time.
San Francisco came out on the opening day of free agency and addressed a clear team need. While they may have let Laken Tomlinson and D.J. Jones walk in free agency (right decisions, in my opinion), they found a high-level starter at a position of need.