49ers should keep defensive back Jimmie Ward for 2018 season

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 22: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys is pushed out of bounds by Jimmie Ward #25 of the San Francisco 49ers during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 22: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys is pushed out of bounds by Jimmie Ward #25 of the San Francisco 49ers during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers still have plenty of roster moves to make heading into the 2018 season. More specifically, the Niners should keep defensive back Jimmie Ward for at least one more season and here’s why.

Since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2014, the San Francisco 49ers had fairly high expectations for Jimmie Ward. Coming out of college, Ward’s natural talents at center field were undeniable.

The Northern Illinois product is an aggressive run stopper and ballhawk, according to his NFL.com draft profile. However, Ward’s biggest red flag heading into his rookie year was his durability.

Four years later, Ward’s health seems to be a major issue after all.

Since 2014, Ward has just completed a full, 16-game season once in 2015. He also only started in eight games during that year.

In previous seasons, Ward has dealt with various injuries such as a broken foot and a broken collarbone. Most recently in 2017, Ward broke his forearm in Week 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles, landing him to the injured reserve for the rest of the season.

Along with his injuries, Ward’s productivity has often been inconsistent as well. Pro Football Focus gave Ward an overall grade of 46.9 for his 2017 campaign, which ranked No. 77 among all NFL safeties.

Additionally, Ward’s stats have not been too impressive overall. In 42 games, Ward only managed to record two interceptions and 21 pass deflections:

Jimmie Ward Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/26/2018.

Despite his injury history and mediocre numbers, there are a few reasons why San Francisco should choose to keep Ward. Even though he has not played to his highest potential, Ward staying with the Niners for at least one more season makes a lot of sense.

Especially because general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan decided to exercise Ward’s fifth-year option, the 49ers likely have a plan in place for the former first-round pick.

Ward offers versatility and provides depth

Ward’s ability to play multiple positions is one of the reasons why letting him go would be difficult.

For several years, Ward has been one of the team’s most dynamic players in the secondary. He has shown he is capable of playing as a free safety, an outside cornerback and a nickel corner.

Before suffering an injury in 2017, Ward mostly played at the free safety position. With the emergence of defensive back Adrian Colbert, the 49ers will experiment with Ward as an outside corner in 2018, according to Niners Nation’s Jennifer Lee Chan:

Although he will not necessarily start over Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, Ward does provide depth at the position.

Ward is better suited to play the nickel spot, but he can be an excellent insurance policy outside especially as Sherman fully recovers from his Achilles injury. Ward’s past experience at the position should also help him in successfully covering the league’s top receivers.

At outside corner, Ward’s 5-foot-11 frame does not fit defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme either. But, as Lynch said, it’s only an “experiment.”

Ward provides hard tackling and makes crucial plays

One of the reasons Ward has been hit with an injury bug is his hard-hitting playing style. Ward may be a tough competitor on the field, but his body does take a toll as a result.

During a press conference introducing center Weston Richburg and running back Jerick McKinnon, Lynch spoke about Ward’s status with the team considering his past injuries:

"You hope a guy like that who has struggled to stay healthy. Sometimes early in my career, I couldn’t stay healthy. Then I went about seven, eight years where I never missed a game. We’re hopeful that can come. Sometimes you learn how to take care of your body. Part of it is he plays so darn hard. But, we love that about him and we’re pleased to have him as a part of our group."

When healthy, Ward does bring toughness and grit to the team. He does not seem afraid to throw his body around to make important plays on defense.

For instance, Ward received a lot of attention for his jolting hit on Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Robert Woods during Week 3 of the 2017 regular season:

In addition, Ward possesses great awareness on the field and makes the necessary plays to put the 49ers in better position. An example from 2017 would be his fumble recovery after linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong forced Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis to drop the football in Week 6:

Lynch and Shanahan praise Ward

Although Ward is set to receive about $8.5 million guaranteed this year, according to Spotrac, it seems Lynch and Shanahan are content with paying him that amount of money.

San Francisco has continuously mentioned its plans with Ward, including a move to outside corner in 2018. In different occasions, Lynch and Shanahan have expressed their positive outlook toward Ward.

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Lynch stated:

"We like Jimmie Ward. We like the versatility that he brings to this team. We like the mindset that he brings. He’s a tough football player. I’ve seen players before have a run of injuries early in their career and somehow they figure something out and they get through it. Hopefully, that can be the case for him. We’ll figure all that out, but we’re excited to have Jimmie back and plan on him being a big-time contributor to this team."

Shanahan has also spoken about what he likes about Ward despite his injury history. Shanahan told ESPN:

"You can try to prevent things in football, but I think that’s just part of the game. You still have to make tackles at corner. You still have to make tackles at nickelback. You have to do it all over the place. Injuries have happened there, also. We’re going to try to get Jimmie back here to be the best player he can be, then you let that handle itself. But I love that he can play all the positions — but I want to make sure that we find the best spot for Jimmie, for him, and for our team."

While the 49ers could simply release or trade Ward, they could also determine if he truly is capable of playing at a high level for at least one more season. Therefore, this could mean Ward will face a “do or die” situation in 2018.

Next: 49ers to give Jimmie Ward reps at cornerback this offseason, per John Lynch

Barring any injuries and considering he succeeds at outside corner, Ward may even receive an extension. Though, only time will tell when Ward finally stays healthy and plays at a consistent basis.