The San Francisco 49ers may be hard pressed to bring back veteran defensive back Jimmie Ward in 2020, as the pending free agent has plenty of leverage this offseason.
Ward, the Niners’ top pick from the 2014 NFL Draft, finally enjoyed the kind of year last season for which the team had been hoping ever since his rookie campaign. While Ward’s previous efforts were largely accompanied by season-ending injuries, 2019 was absolutely stellar.
Pro Football Focus ended up grading Ward as the No. 6 overall safety from last season.
Unlike last year, when the 49ers inked Ward to what was essentially a one-year prove-it deal following his long string of injuries, Ward now hits the open market at precisely the right time: coming off a career-best campaign.
And that gives him plenty of leverage over San Francisco.
This is due to a number of reasons. For starters, the 2020 NFL Draft is deep at wide receiver and cornerback. The safety class, however, is nowhere near as deep. Perhaps only a handful of top picks could end up finding their way into a Niners uniform this upcoming season. And with the 49ers likely wanting to address other needs, such as the interior of the offensive line or cornerback, it’ll be tough for Ward’s production to be replicated so easily.
Ward recently gave an open endorsement to his backup last season, Tarvarius Moore, who actually started early in 2019 when Ward was dealing with a broken finger. But Moore, then in his second year after being selected by San Francisco in Round 3 of the 2018 draft, still showed too many signs of pro-level inexperience.
The Niners had no choice but to insert Ward back into the starting role in Week 4.
While there were plenty of other factors and X-factors in the mix, one can notice a sharp difference in the average splits of pass yards allowed when Ward was in the lineup compared to when he was out of it.
From Weeks 1 through 3, when Ward was injured, the Niners allowed an average of 208.3 pass yards per game. From Week 5 through the end of the regular season, with Ward back in the lineup, the 49ers allowed an average of 160.2 pass yards per game.
This isn’t to say Ward was solely responsible for cutting off an average of nearly 50 pass yards per game against San Francisco’s defense.
But he did have a lot to do with that number. And it certainly influenced PFF’s decision to rank him so high.
The stat difference is likely to be something Ward and his camp will use at the negotiating table, should the Niners be intent on bringing him back. Given the circumstances and the relative lack of depth, both on the roster and in the draft, it would make sense the 49ers would want Ward to return.
The only question, however, is whether or not Ward will want to command top money on the open market.
General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have been enamored with Ward ever since taking over the franchise in 2017. But with just over $13 million in salary cap space, currently, Lynch and Shanahan either may have to decide between cutting deep into that limited number to keep Ward around, or merely let the safety hit the open market.
And that’s an NFL standoff in which Ward appears to have the upper hand.