The 49ers made their first big splash of the offseason, agreeing to terms with former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward on a 3-year deal worth up to 42 million, with 26.7 million in guarantees.
There was a clear motivation on the 49ers’ part to upgrade in their secondary, and they accomplished that goal on the first day of the legal tampering period by landing a player of Ward’s caliber.
I know several 49ers fans may be unfamiliar with Ward and his stint in Kansas City. So I thought it would be a good idea to give a quick rundown on his recent performance and how he projects to make an impact on the 49ers going forward.
I also had the pleasure of chatting with Mark Gunnels, who covers the Kansas City Chiefs for Arrowhead Pride. Mark gave some great insight on what to expect from Ward and his takeaways after covering Ward during his time with the Chiefs.
Let’s start with the basics. Ward is 6’1 200 pounds and spent the last four seasons in the Chiefs secondary after going undrafted out of Middle Tennessee State in 2018. Ward has started 43 games in his NFL career, including 11 playoff games and two super bowls.
Last season, Ward was one of the best cornerbacks in man coverage, only allowing a 38% completion rate when targeted in man coverage in 2021. He also displayed a consistent ability to reroute opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, highlighting a strong skillset in press man that should allow 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans to get a bit diversified with his play calling.
Another area where Ward has stood out is his tackling ability, which tends to fly under the radar when discussing defensive backs. Ward finished the 2021 season with a missed tackle rate of 5.0%, which ranked 5th among cornerbacks who logged at least 750 snaps.
That sure-fire tackling ability is extremely important in a scheme that’s as zone-heavy as the 49ers’ tends to be. Ward was not only solid in that regard, but he was also among the best players in the league at his position when it came to bringing down opponents.
The advanced stats are where Ward really shines. Here are some numbers from his time in coverage during the 2021 season, per Next Gen Stats. These numbers and their rank are among all defensive backs league-wide who were targeted a minimum of 50 times last season.
Completion percentage allowed - 44. 8% / 2nd
Average target separation - 2.0 / 1st
Tight window rate - 46.3% / 1st
Coverage success rate - 64.2% / 4th
Also, per Next Gen Stats, since 2016, Ward is just the second player to force a higher tight window target rate (46.3%) than catch rate allowed (44.8%) in a season since 2016, among players who have been targeted a minimum of 50 times.
This data doesn’t just stand alone from this past season. Ward has had a pattern of success dating back a few seasons when it comes to tight window target rate.
Since 2018, Ward has led the league with a tight window target rate of 37.0%. However, he is providing his new team a clear upgrade, as the 49ers' defense ranked 27th in the league in that category in 2021 at 12.7%.
Ward’s production also stands out with more conventional stats as well. Here are the league leaders in lowest completion percentage allowed in coverage since 2019 among cornerbacks who have been targeted 150+ times :
1. Charvarius Ward - 49.8%
2. J.C. Jackson - 51.7%
3. Casey Hayward Jr. - 52.3%
4. Jaire Alexander - 53.8%
5. Denzel Ward - 54.1%
That’s quite the impressive list of names to sit atop, as three of the other four players have received all-pro nods, and all four have been named to the pro bowl in their respective careers.
Ward is producing among the elite players at his own position, and he will be just 26 years during the upcoming 2022 season. The 49ers were able to toe the line between signing an impact talent while also bringing in a player who is not on the back nine of their career.
The case could be made that Ward’s best football is ahead of him, as the 49ers will look to capitalize on what are generally the prime years for a defensive back. Ryans gets a player proficient in press-man looks, which helps unlock the full potential of a defense that was hampered by a revolving door at the cornerback position just one year ago.
When you factor in cost, production, age, and scheme fit, all signs point towards this being a slam dunk signing for the 49ers. There’s still work to do in regards to solidifying the back end of the defense, but Ward being the first piece of the puzzle is a great start.
Here was my conversation with Mark Gunnels of Arrowhead Pride:
1. As someone who covers the Chiefs, what was your biggest takeaway regarding Ward’s play during his stint with Kansas City?
My biggest takeaway was Ward never backing down from the opponent’s top receiver. Especially when you consider Ward went undrafted. It’s a testament to how much he loves improving year after year.
2. What was your initial reaction to the news that Ward was signing with San Francisco?
From a Chief’s perspective, I was bummed out because he’s our best corner, and he’s still young. On the flip side, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has a history of going cheap at corner, so it’s no surprise he was unwilling to match or surpass the Niners’ offer.
3. Is there anything about Ward the player or Ward the person that 49ers fans might not be aware of?
The fascinating thing about Ward is that his football career didn’t get started until his senior year in high school. A major reason for the late start was that Ward underwent surgery at a young age to remove a cyst in his hip zone. This forced Ward to be confined to a wheelchair for six months, and he was subjected to crutches for two years during grade school.
4. Bonus question. Tyrann Mathieu said before he was drafted that the 49ers would be his dream team to play for in the NFL. What do you project his market to be, and where do you think he ultimately signs?
It’s honestly hard to tell right now because I thought Tyrann Mathieu would’ve signed somewhere by now. However, it appears the money he’s seeking; no one is willing to give as he will be turning 30. Now, I think he’s waiting to see what Deshaun Watson does, and if he ends up in New Orleans, I have no doubt Mathieu will follow since that’s his hometown, and he’s already good friends with Watson.