According to Football Outsiders Almanac, eight different players started a game at cornerback for the 49ers in 2021. Usually, that means your defense is struggling. As we know, that wasn’t the case for the Niners on that side of the ball last season.
Still, when it mattered the most, San Francisco couldn’t get off the field during the biggest moments due to the lack of a reliable cornerback.
Emmanuel Moseley finished with a 58% success rate, which was good enough for 23rd in the NFL. Moseley also ranked 22nd in yards per pass allowed. Given his contract, getting CB2 production out of E-Man is as good of a return on investment as you can ask. Unfortunately, the 49ers found out that good wasn’t good enough.
The front office knew they needed an upgrade at cornerback this offseason. The defense ranked 30th in DVOA in the NFL against opposing No. 1 receivers last year.
A.J. Brown had 11 receptions for 145 yards on Thursday Night Football. Tee Higgins caught five passes for 114 yards. Cooper Kupp went over the century mark in all three games against the Niners. Michael Pittman had 105 receiving yards and a touchdown in a game where conditions were miserable at night. You get the point.
Josh Norman was on his last leg and wound up getting benched. Norman finished 70th in success rate and 78th in yards per pass allowed — that’s without mentioning his numerous pass interferences.
Another veteran, Dontae Johnson, competed but didn’t have the athleticism to stay with the upper echelon receivers. Johnson finished with a lower success rate than Norman.
Ambry Thomas improved with more reps, but the stage was too big for him in the NFC Championship. The 49ers drafted a pair of rookie cornerbacks, but after the season Thomas just had, it was unlikely a rookie would give San Francisco what they needed in 2022.
Enter Charvarius Ward. The Niners aren’t asking Ward, who signed a 3-year, $40 million contract this offseason, to be Deion Sanders circa ’94. If Ward performs at the same level as last season, it’s a win for San Francisco.
Ward finished with a 63% success rate and allowed 6.0 yards per pass, both good enough for 10th in the NFL. By definition, those are CB1 numbers. What makes Ward’s ’21 season so impressive — and likely the reason San Francisco invested in him — is that he followed the other teams’ top target, often with little to no help.
Here is Ward last year against CeeDee Lamb, Courtland Sutton, and A.J. Brown:
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo trusted Charvarius on an island. The ripple effects of leaving a cornerback 1-on-1 allow you to put another set of eyes elsewhere, stopping another receiver or using an extra defender in the box to take away the run.
Against the Cowboys, Ward allowed three receptions on nine targets for 32 yards. He had an interception, dropped another, and had a pass breakup. Going up against the Broncos, Charvarius was targeted five times and allowed one catch for 10 yards. He got his hands on three passes, breaking up one, and should have intercepted two others. Ward allowed one catch on three targets for 12 yards versus the Titans.
Saying Ward is an upgrade over Norman or Johnson doesn’t give enough credit to Ward. He’s closer to Richard Sherman in 2019 or Jason Verrett in 2020. Unlike those two, Ward is still ascending as a player.
Now, he’s far from perfect. Brown and Julio Jones outmuscled Ward on a couple of routes. There were times against Dallas when Ward’s feet got too wide, causing him to get out of position. He also gave up a few slants for first downs. Everyone is well aware of what Ja’Marr Chase did to him toward the end of the season.
I’ll take a cornerback who travels with the top receivers, even if they go into the slot, every day of the week. On 67 targets, Ward only allowed three touchdowns.
Slants won’t hurt you in the long run. Explosive plays will. Ward had ten games last season where he allowed fewer than 35 yards a game in coverage. In half of those, opposing receivers didn’t surpass 20 yards.
If Ward continues to be in position, it’s fair to assume some of those dropped interceptions are caught this time around. And that’s before we get into the added benefit of having the 49ers pass rush in front of him.
The biggest winner is DeMeco Ryans, who had to resort to doubling Devante Adams during the playoffs last year after two series:
DeMeco Ryans did a great job of adjusting all year but I think what he did vs. the Packers in the playoffs was his best. Davante Adams caught 4 passes on the first 2 drives. Ryans knew he didn’t have an answer so he ripped the game plan up and doubled him the rest of the half. pic.twitter.com/PkPHSFHBk8— KP (@KP_Show) July 8, 2022
Again, this isn’t to say Ward is going to waltz into the season and lock down whoever you put in front of him.
What the addition of Ward does is let Ryans be creative. Instead of sitting back and playing Cover 2, as the 49ers did against the Bengals, he can be aggressive and use different looks to confuse the quarterback.
For Ryans to improve in Year 2, he needed a cornerback who was competitive enough to guard anybody you throw in front of him. That’s Ward. Now, Moseley matches up with the opposing No. 2. You like your chances there. And whether it’s Jimmie Ward, Jason Verrett, or one of the youngsters in the slot, the matchups are favorable, and it’s all due to the addition of Ward.
There will be no shortage of No. 1 wide receivers on the schedule this year, as the 49ers play the AFC West and NFC South to go along with the Dolphins (Tyreek Hill) and the star wideouts in their division. Charvarius will earn his contract in a hurry.
Ward just turned 26. You can tell that his best football is ahead of him when you watch him. Ward’s a player you get the sense that he is close to figuring it out, but he isn’t there yet.
Ryans and the 49ers are hoping 2022 is the season Ward cements himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the league. If so, this defense has a chance to be one of the best in the NFL.