49ers again need Jimmie Ward to perform at high level in 2020

Jimmie Ward #20 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jimmie Ward #20 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The 49ers experienced career-best efforts from Jimmie Ward in 2019, and they’ll need that to stay the case once more this season.

It took a while for him to latch on. But defensive back Jimmie Ward‘s career with the San Francisco 49ers finally hit a great stride in 2019.

It also helped Ward was mostly healthy, avoiding season-ending injured reserve for only the second time in his four-year career since being selected by the Niners in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft. While Ward did miss two games early due to a broken finger, appearing in 14 regular-season games and being part of a San Francisco defense that ranked No. 1 against the pass was a key indicator the 49ers finally got a great return on their investment from years ago.

And those efforts resulted in Ward’s three-year, $28.5 million contract signed early in 2020.

Ward’s solid presence at free safety last season promoted the idea this would be his natural fit moving forward. After years of bouncing around everywhere within the secondary, giving Ward a bona fide role had its merits. Both he and the Niners defense thrived as a result, and it was pretty evident his presence went a long way towards ensuring San Francisco would boast an elite-level pass defense.

Jimmie Ward Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/6/2020.

While his traditional stats don’t necessarily jump off the table, it’s important to note Pro Football Focus awarded him with an excellent 84.2 overall grade, which both served as a career-best and ranked him seventh among all qualifying safeties last year.

And that’s precisely what San Francisco will want out of Ward again entering 2020.

There’s plenty of hope the 29-year-old Ward will continue at this pace. It appears as if he’s found his niche within the defense, and consistency should do him a lot of good. At the same time, though, Ward’s leadup to last year’s efforts raise questions whether or not 2019 was more of an anomaly than a sign of things to come.

Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series explores what to expect from Ward this season, why he’ll improve, or why he could potentially regress.

Why Jimmie Ward improves with 49ers in 2020

On the simple side of things, it’s going to be hard for Ward to get noticeably better in comparison to what he did a year ago, which was already pretty top notch.

Aside from suggesting would-be generated turnovers and interceptions, which always help, one particular area in which Ward could improve would be in his pass coverage. Despite the high grades last year, opposing quarterbacks still posted a 121.3 passer rating when targeting him a year ago. Granted, this stat is somewhat misleading, as Ward allowed only 16 targets in 2019. Considering he gave up 44 and 43 in 2015 and 2016, respectively, one could easily argue Ward is simply discouraging quarterbacks from throwing towards his area of the field.

But when they do, some added lockdown coverage would do some good.

Another factor in the mix is San Francisco’s slight defensive tweak of making both the free and strong safety spots more interchangeable, promoting more traditional Cover 2 looks instead of the single-high Cover 3 coordinator Robert Saleh frequently implemented prior to last year. Ward seemed to produce much better when having a strong safety deeper in the defensive formations, and that should continue into 2020.

Why Jimmie Ward regresses with 49ers in 2020

Even though Ward managed to stay healthy over the majority of last season, his lengthy injury history won’t go away anytime soon.

Ward still suffered a broken collarbone and broken finger leading up to the regular season last year. Yes, he recovered from both and still managed to contribute. But realizing he’s landed on season-ending injured reserve in four of his first six seasons at the pro level doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence with regards to his availability.

Injuries aside, Ward hasn’t always been the best at coverage. Even in 2018, when Ward was assuming the same free safety duties, PFF credited him with a 51.3 pass-coverage grade despite allowing only 14 receptions on the year. The year before, Ward was given a 51.5 pass-coverage grade, although 2015 and 2016 saw him in the 60s, albeit when he was playing more cornerback than safety.

So it’s fair to assume Ward’s 2019 efforts won’t automatically transition over to his upcoming campaign, leaving some room for doubt he might regress this season.

Projected role, impact with 49ers

As long as Ward stays healthy, he’ll be pegged as the starting safety for San Francisco in 2020 and beyond. The Niners experienced an uptick in play from Ward’s primary backup last year, Tarvarius Moore. But Moore likely assumes a different role as a “big nickel” safety, with Ward potentially dropping down closer to the box depending on matchups.

A continued focus on the Niners pass rush means there will be opportunities for Ward and the secondary to pick up on the turnover game. Ward has never been known as a ballhawk, recording just two interceptions during his pro career. Yet adding that element to his game would certainly go a long way towards improving his stock value and increasing his presence for the defense.

Even if that doesn’t wind up being the case, at least Ward’s presence on the field should continue to serve as a quality safety blanket over the top. That was how things went last year, and there’s good enough reason to assume it remains the case again in 2020.

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The 49ers surely need that to happen, especially if one subscribes to the idea the secondary is their weakest part of the defense.