49ers’ 2018 ‘Who Is?’ series: Defensive back Jimmie Ward

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 20: Jimmie Ward #25 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates a sack of AJ McCarron #5 of the Cincinnati Bengals during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 20: Jimmie Ward #25 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates a sack of AJ McCarron #5 of the Cincinnati Bengals during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise’s 2018 “Who Is?” series takes a look at a San Francisco 49ers player without a position, defensive back Jimmie Ward, and what kind of role he’ll hold this upcoming season.

Heading into 2018, San Francisco 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward is almost considered a player without a position.

The former first-round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft missed half of 2017 with a broken forearm, which gave way to then-rookie free safety Adrian Colbert‘s ascent. And after Colbert’s strong debut, plus a reinforced cornerback group, Ward now finds himself pushed to the periphery.

Ward has flashed moments of being a true lockdown defensive back, playing at both safety and corner positions over his first four years at the league. One of the major problems, though, is he has a reputation for being injury prone. Since being drafted, Ward has landed on season-ending injured reserve three of his four years at the pro level.

Jimmie Ward Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/10/2018.

In 2014, it was a foot injury. The following year, he suffered a broken collarbone. Yet, for some reason, the Niners elected to pick up his fifth-year option in May of 2017. And with him being on the roster by the start of the league’s new year this season, his $8.526 million salary is fully guaranteed.

An awful lot of money for a player likely slated for backup duties.

There’s a chance Ward returns to a starting role. But it’s going to take a lot for him to make those strides necessary to finally emerge as a true first-round talent.

Here’s how it can happen.

Why Jimmie Ward Improves in 2018

Ward missed the majority of offseason activities and training camp with the 49ers last year, dealing with a hamstring injury. This likely hurt his adjustment to coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense, although Ward ended up being a starter in Week 2 of 2017.

A full year’s command should do Ward some good, even though the Niners appear to be moving Ward back from safety to cornerback this offseason.

That might be OK, though. He played on the outside during his best year as a pro, 2015, and was rewarded with a 77.5 overall grade that season by Pro Football Focus.

It’s a far cry from the lowly 46.9 PFF grade received a year ago.

Despite his 5-foot-11, 193-pound frame (which suggests a nickel-type corner), Ward has shown the ability to match up against outside receivers relatively well. Aside from some forgettable moments his rookie season, of course.

If he’s able to replicate those kinds of efforts during camp, Ward stands a good shot to wind up being a starter. Although that would take a few other things happening, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Why He Regresses

In some ways, Ward has been something of a tease for 49ers fans. There have been times where he’s flashed promise only to be beset by some sort of regressive-like stretch.

It hasn’t helped Ward has had four different defensive coordinators entering year five of his career. And even though Saleh marks the first offseason of continuity in some time, Ward faces yet another challenge with another position switch.

While it’s certainly possible Ward “comes into his own” after a second year in the same system, the fact he didn’t exactly thrive in Saleh’s Cover 3 scheme, while at his natural free safety position, is a bit concerning. Simply put, it’s looking more like Ward is the kind of player we’ve seen over the previous four seasons — showcasing talent at times but lacking the regular consistency.

And there’s always the injury factor to worry about.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

Expected Role with the 49ers in 2018

If San Francisco sticks with Ward at cornerback, there still isn’t any guarantee he winds up being a starter. The Niners inked free-agent cornerback Richard Sherman this offseason, while second-year corner Ahkello Witherspoon had a very promising rookie season in 2017. Barring injury or a complete meltdown in camp, Ward will be hard pressed to overtake either one of those two on the depth chart.

Perhaps he has a better shot winning the camp battle over incumbent starting nickel, K’Waun Williams, who started off sluggish in 2017 but finished strong with an 80.2 overall PFF grade.

But even if Williams has some issues early, the 49ers also have rookie slot corner D.J. Reed in the fray — yet another body with whom Ward will have to compete.

A likely top-three cornerback depth chart for Week 1 would list Sherman, Witherspoon and Williams in that order. This, of course, keeps Ward in a backup role.

It’s not necessarily bad, though. Ward’s versatility to play any of the cornerback spots, as well as doubling as a safety, makes him a valuable commodity in case of injury.

Albeit an expensive one.

Next: 49ers 2018 offseason positional preview: Cornerback

Regardless, it’s looking as if 2018 will be Ward’s last season in San Francisco, as the Niners push for younger defensive backs chosen by the current regime. Still, Ward will be looking for a strong season in what looks to be a pivotal contract year.