San Francisco 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward is an important part of the Niners’ secondary, but is he worth his $8.5 million price tag?
Jimmy Ward has experienced something of a rollercoaster career ever since the Jim Harbaugh-Trent Baalke regime selected him with the No. 30 overall pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
While he’s shown flashes of brilliance, Ward’s frustrating inconsistency is due to several factors, including an inability to settle into one specific position, injuries, and most recently, the emergence of several other budding young stars in the secondary.
Barring injuries, Ward will open the season as a versatile backup, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the fifth-year pro wasn’t selected in the first round of the draft (or retained via the pickup of his fifth-year option) with the idea that he would essentially become a super-utilityman. Of course, this doesn’t mean he’s not a useful player, as guys who can serve as the top backup at multiple positions are few and far between in today’s NFL, but it’s fair to say he’s fallen short of the expectations that come along with being taken in the first round of the draft.
As Ward enters his walk year, we’re taking a look at the pros and cons of him sticking around for his fifth season with San Francisco.
Pro: Ward is one of the most experienced members of San Francisco’s secondary
Hard to believe, isn’t it? But it’s true: Ward is entering his fifth season with the red and gold, and the soon-to-be 27-year-old has suddenly become the elder statesmen of the secondary as one of the lingering Baalke-era holdovers.
While Richard Sherman, 30, boasts far more experience (and far more success) than any defensive back in San Fran’s locker room, he’s yet to suit up for a single snap as a Niner.
There haven’t been many reports one way or the other about Ward’s influence in the locker room, but having a veteran present probably isn’t the worst idea when three quarters of your projected starting secondary (Ahkello Witherspoon, Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt) will enter the season at 23, 24 and 26 years old.
Ward already has four seasons under his belt with the red-and-gold. Other than Tartt, no other Niner defensive back has more than two, so Ward is the unit’s one true constant.
Con: Ward is overpaid
According to Jason Hurley of NinersNation.com, Ward will make $8.526 million (this was the cost of picking up his fifth-year option) in 2018 and is the highest-paid player on the defense. Here is a list of the only five 49ers who will be paid more than the Northern Illinois product this season: Jimmy Garoppolo ($37 million), Joe Staley ($10.894 million), Jerick McKinnon ($10.5 million), Weston Richburg ($9.26 million) and Pierre Garcon ($9.25 million).
While the Niners are overpaying their veteran safety – who had never made more than $1.067 million in a season prior to the upcoming 2018 campaign — picking up Ward’s fifth-year option prior to the start of last season hardly put the organization in dire financial straits, as San Francisco was in no danger whatsoever of exceeding the salary cap and isn’t committed to him past 2018.
Still, it is staggering to see Ward making such big bucks. By comparison, San Francisco’s second-highest-paid defensive player is Solomon Thomas, who was taken third overall in last year’s draft and is set to pull in just shy of $6.399 million, more than $2 million less than Ward.
Pro: Ward doesn’t appear to be blocking a deserving player’s path to playing time
As arguably the most underrated unit on San Francisco’s roster, the secondary is ripe with young talent. The young and up-and-coming Witherspoon, Colbert and Tartt enter the season with the inside track to starting roles, while Ward is on the outside looking in and facing competition from K’Waun Williams for snaps at nickelback.
While there’s been nothing to indicate that Witherspoon, Colbert or Tartt are the complacent type, it’s still a luxury to roster a capable veteran who’s ready to snare a starting job if someone’s play starts to dip (or if the injury bug bites).
Ward’s naysayers may argue that he’s preventing young DBs such as Williams and Tarvarius Moore from climbing the depth chart, but those players will have plenty of opportunities to stake their claim to playing time throughout training camp and the preseason, regardless of Ward’s presence.
Con: Ward is injured too much and has struggled when he’s healthy
In his four seasons with the team from 2014 to 2017, Ward has suited up for 8, 16, 11 and 7 games, respectively. That’s 42 out of 64 possible games, or 65.6 percent for those scoring at home. Seemingly no body part has been spared, as Ward has already experienced injuries to his quad, foot, clavicle, hamstring and forearm, the last of which occurred during a Week 8 loss to Eagles last season and caused him to be placed on Injured Reserve and miss the rest of the campaign.
Of course, Ward wasn’t exactly enjoying a banner season prior to the injury: He graded out as the No. 77 of 86 qualified safeties while earning an overall grade of just 46.9 from Pro Football Focus. To be blunt, even when he was on the field last season, he wasn’t very good.
Pro/Con: It’s the final season of Ward’s contract
This is kind of a weird one, but stay with us.
That Ward is entering the final season of his rookie contract presents something of a mixed bag for San Francisco. On one hand, the Niners won’t owe another penny to Ward when his deal expires at the end of the upcoming season. On the other, if Ward picks the perfect time to come through with a breakout season wherein he establishes himself as a versatile and fast-rising defensive back – keep in mind, he’ll still be just 27 years old when the season begins – then Ward might prove too costly to retain. A sudden ascent to the top tier of NFL defensive backs seems unlikely for Ward, but this league has seen its share of late bloomers, and crazier things have certainly happened in the NFL.
So, in an odd way, San Francisco is in something of a no-win scenario: Either Ward continues to underperform relative to being drafted in the first round, or he finally lives up to the hype and turns in his best-ever season just prior to becoming available to all 32 teams as an unrestricted free agent.
Conclusion: Considering the surplus of young talent in the secondary, Jimmie Ward may not factor into San Francisco’s plans past this season. The unrestricted free agent-to-be has a lot to play for in 2018, as his production (or lack thereof) will go a long way in determining the years and dollars on his next contract.
An in season-extension with the Niners isn’t out of the question if Ward shows well during the first few games of the campaign, but it would likely have to be quite team-friendly and cost-effective, as San Francisco probably won’t break the bank for someone who’s fallen short of expectations while being relegated to a backup role.
Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is the talk of the NFL, and why not? The second-year Kansas City signal-caller has turned in an historic performance over the first two weeks of the 2018 campaign, firing 10 touchdown strikes against zero turnovers while moving his unit up and down the field at will and leading the Chiefs to a league-high 80 points.
So, who needs to step up if the 49ers are to stand any chance of derailing Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable 23-year-old quarterback? After watching DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman compete at their typical All-Pro levels through the first two games, we’re operating under the assumption that they’ll keep it up in Week 3, so both players are exempt from this list. Instead, here are the top three defenders that need to take their game to the next level if the Niners are going to slow down Mahomes.
LB Reuben Foster
San Francisco’s resident human missile makes his highly anticipated return to the gridiron following his two-game suspension, and not a moment too soon.
Though he’s suited up for just 10 games since being drafted 31st overall in last year’s draft, Reuben Foster has already shown himself to be a rare breed: A ferocious hitter whose fearless style of play jumps off the screen to even the most casual of football observers. Foster brings the swagger, and it rubs off on his defensive mates. Need proof? Look at Week 1 against Carolina last season, and note the stark difference in the unit from when he was on the field to after he exited with an injury.
49er Faithful have salivated at the idea of seeing Foster and breakout rookie Fred Warner on the field at the same time, and San Francisco’s youthful linebackers will be put to the test in their first game together.
Foster is just as proficient dropping back in coverage as he is laying a punishing hit on the ballcarrier, and regardless of his assignment on Sunday, he’ll have a huge say in whether San Francisco can stop the explosive Mahomes.
DE Solomon Thomas
With DeForest Buckner almost certain to command significant attention from Kansas City’s offensive line, San Francisco will need someone other than just their stud defensive tackle to supply the heat (so far this season, Buckner has 3.5 sacks; the rest of the team has 1.5 sacks). Enter Solomon Thomas.
The third overall pick of last year’s draft, Thomas has just three career sacks and is still looking for his first of 2018 (though he did generate four quarterback hurries while playing on only 47 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps last week), and there’s no better time to accomplish that feat than during a matchup against a quarterback who’s picked defenses apart for two weeks and seemingly can’t miss his target.
While Thomas’ role has become a point of contention among fans and those who cover the team, the second-year man will undoubtedly see an uptick in snaps if he generates a bit more pressure, and that process began last week. But it’s one thing to hurry the quarterback; it’s quite another to make contact, affect passes and drop him behind the line of scrimmage, and if Thomas can do so, then San Francisco’s chances of forcing a mistake out of the young quarterback will grow exponentially.
Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five) last week, so knocking him around a bit will be imperative to disrupting his rhythm. And while it’s almost always the quarterback who scores the headlines, Mahomes’ blistering start to the season is due in no small part to his stout offensive line, which has permitted just two sacks through two games, despite the signal-caller already chucking 55 passes.
Thomas can lineup virtually anywhere on the defensive line, and he’ll need to bring is his A-game if he’s to fight his way through and around Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked unit through two games. Seeing as how Kansas City starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz have only permitted six pressures in two games, this could be the week for San Francisco to see what Thomas can do with some extensive playing time from the interior, where he’s at his best as a pass-rusher anyway.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Simply put, Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily in Week 2.
The second-year corner, who flashed enticing upside at the end of last season, couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s prolific passing attack, and he was victimized for a pair of touchdowns while yielding eight receptions for 99 yards and taking a pair of penalties on 13 targets.
Still, it’s important to remember that two games is an extremely small sample size, and he fared far better against the Vikings in Week 1 (71.0 grade from PFF) than he did against the Lions in Week 2 (27.9 grade).
The good news for Witherspoon? He’ll likely spend some time covering fourth-year man Chris Conley, who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since being taken by Kansas City in the third round of the 2015 draft. Even with the ever-accurate Mahomes racking up 582 yards through the air, Conley has just three grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. He’s also lost a fumble.
If Witherspoon finds himself matched up against Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, he’ll undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but such a challenge would also give him every opportunity to show that last week was a fluke, a small blip on the radar of what has been a very promising start to his NFL career. With the second-year man coming off a subpar outing against the Lions and teams still shying away from Richard Sherman, Witherspoon is all but certain to be thrust into the limelight on Sunday.
If the Niners get the same confident, physical cornerback they saw at the end of last season, then Witherspoon should at least hold his own, even against the prolific Mahomes-led aerial attack, which comes into the Week 3 clash firing on all cylinders.
Podcast: Friday Mailbag
Podcast for Friday, September 21
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