As a player who has only played 16 games once in his four-year career, Jimmie Ward’s future with the Forty-Niners is in question. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are in year two of remaking the roster they inherited, and it appeared that they were quite high on Jimmie Ward in their first year – anointing him a starting safety before the third season-ending injury of his career. As everyone knows, in the NFL, this doesn’t necessarily mean he is in their long term plans. The fact that they picked up his fifth year option at what Spotrac reports as 8.5 million dollars pushes the casual observer to say he will definitely be on the team, but this question needs a deeper look than just purely numbers.
This past draft Lynch drafted three defensive backs: Tarvarius Moore, a 6’2” DB who projects to a cornerback for the team; D.J. Reed, a 5’9” cornerback; and Marcell Harris, a 6’1” safety with long arms who sat out his last season of college football. This, along with the addition of Richard Sherman and the emergence of Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert as the favorite starting safeties for the team are the reasons we are even having this conversation. Although Ward has been injured a lot in his brief four-year career, he has performed average when he is on the field. He has played inside and outside cornerback, as well as at free safety.
Before the draft, Lynch told the press that Ward would be moved back to cornerback this season. As a rookie, he played in the slot, before being bumped outside and then moved to safety. This versatility, when looking at the Forty-Niner DB classroom, will help keep Ward on the roster. Moving forward, it could be expected that Ward could be seen as a safety plan in case of another injury plagued season for the Forty-Niners’ safeties.
Last year’s initial 53-man roster saw 10 defensive backs make the squard, with 5 CBs (Rashard Robinson, Dontae Johnson, KWaun Williams, Ahkello Witherspoon and Keith Reaser) and 5 Safeties (Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Lorenzo Jerome, and Adrian Colbert). Three of those players were rookies (Witherspoon, Jerome, and Colbert) and only five of those ten players (Williams, Witherspoon, Ward, Tartt, and Colbert) are still on the roster at this point. Add in Don Jones, who was on the injured reserve, and you still have a lot of roster spots turning over.
Where does Ward fit into this scenario? We know that Sherman, Witherspoon, Colbert, and Tartt are locks to make the team and start. That leaves six roster spots up for grabs if Shanahan and Lynch follow the same format for the roster as they did last year. Looking at that, the numbers seem to fit and say Ward will still be on the roster by Week 1, and that he is a good fit for this defense Lynch and Shanahan are building.
Although he is only 5’11”, Ward plays much larger, and he ran a sub 4.5 40-yard dash at his Northern Illinois pro day. He plays with the violence that Saleh covets on defense, and he arguably played his best football in the inside cornerback role. His speed and versatility scream what the Forty Niners are trying to do with their defense right now. He could beat out KWaun Williams for the starting slot position. He’s a little longer, a little bigger, and a better tackler – plus they’re the same age. If Colbert or Tartt went down with an injury, it could allow them to move him into that position and bring either Moore or Reed in as the slot cornerback. His versatility is really what makes him a huge fit.
We’ve seen Shanahan and Saleh move players around on defense (i.e. Eric Reid at linebacker). Ward fits the Swiss army knife defensive back and barring a huge jump by one of the rookies or a huge drop off in Ward’s output during OTA’s and preseason games, I would expect him to be a good fit and a vital role player in the improving defense. If he makes it four out of five years ending the season of injured reserve, then I wouldn’t expect a new contract coming out of the front office for him next off-season.
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