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49ers: Pros and cons of keeping DB Jimmie Ward in San Francisco

Jon Chik

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49ers Safeties

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.

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