The 49ers head into the 2023 offseason with 25 players (21 unrestricted, four restricted) entering free agency. Throughout the offseason, we’ll highlight each player and their case.
Jimmie Ward, FS/NCB, 31
Jimmie Ward was drafted with the 30th pick in the 2014 NFL draft by Trent Baalke and the 49ers. Read that again. Ward and Arik Armstead are the final holdovers from the Baalke era. Funny enough, Ward started his 49ers career the same way he could end it, playing slot cornerback.
The difference is the talent surrounding Ward and the defensive coordinators putting his players in positions to succeed. Early on, Ward was miscast. In addition to the games missed due to injuries, 49ers fans grew impatient with Ward.
2015 was his only season playing 16 games, but from 2019 to the present, Ward has played 12 or more games, including a 16-game season in 2021.
Once his durability improved, his play and impact became easier to realize. Ward was a Swiss army knife for this defense. Whether it was slowing down explosive plays on the back end, covering receivers or tight ends in the slot, or helping in run defense, Ward was consistent.
Returning from an injury sustained in the preseason, discussions grew about how the 49ers would use Ward once he returned. Tashaun Gipson was signed by the team and could have been viewed as a veteran presence while Ward recovered.
Ward’s return to the field was limited to one snap in Week 5 against Carolina, as he sustained another injury to his hand.
When Ward did return, he was moved to slot cornerback against the eventual Super Bowl champion, Kansas City Chiefs. PFF graded his performance in coverage at 38.6 overall. That was his lowest on the season, and is understandable given the opponent and his first extended action of 2022.
The rest of 2022 was impressive for Ward, who was vocal about his displeasure about the move to the slot but was playing extended snaps in the slot for the first time in years.
Finishing the season with an overall defensive grade of 80.6, on the season, is impressive. Whether or not Ward agreed with the change of position, he showed his versatility and dedication to being a team player.
Ward allowed 7.7 yards per reception and notched a career-high three interceptions in 2022.
So, what do the 49ers do with Ward? At 31 years old, Ward is still playing at a high level and has shown versatility.
According to Spotrac, Ward’s market value is 7.6 million dollars annually. However, that’s at the free safety position. Tashaun Gipson is also 31, and the 49ers signed him to a one-year deal worth 1.12 million dollars.
Even with the cap increase in 2023, Ward will move on. DeMeco Ryans will welcome him with open arms to join Jalen Pitre and bring a veteran presence to the secondary room.