San Francisco 49ers: 10 Early Predictions for 2016 Regular Season
Defensive MVP: Jimmie Ward
The obvious candidates here were inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman and defensive tackle Ian Williams. Bowman will continue to get better as he fully recovers from his torn ACL, and Williams is coming off his own surgery for a broken ankle, and there is no guarantee he starts the regular season.
Ward is a player on the rise. His last five games were very good (minus the Detroit Lions game), per Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus:
After being the team’s nickel corner, the coaching staff are testing him now at being a base defense CB. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil recently stated that Ward is one of the best 11 defensive players, based on his football knowledge and athleticism.
O’Neil further explained the benefits of having Ward on the field as much as possible (h/t Joe Fann of 49ers.com):
"Just athletic ability, football knowledge, what his skillset brings to our defensive system. He’s a guy that, just watching him and the way he’s practiced and the way he’s attacked the meeting rooms, he’s a guy I know we have to get on the field."
Per Pro Football Focus, Ward ranked 35th out of 111 qualified cornerbacks with a grade of plus-78.2 (from a zero to 100 scale). This grade included a plus-77.7 grade for coverage (second-highest on the team) and a plus-78.6 grade for run defense (both on the same scale), which was also second-highest on the team.
Ward is going into his third NFL season, and at only 24, has a massive upside to his game. If he keeps making improvement over the rest of the off-season, he will be a starting CB. Provided he doesn’t lose his confidence (he obviously won’t lose his athletic ability), he will be the team’s defensive MVP in 2016.
Next: Offensive MVP: Carlos Hyde