49ers roster 2021: Jimmie Ward a new team leader

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

The 49ers are going to be relying heavily on safety Jimmie Ward in 2021, not just as an important defender but also as a vocal leader.

It’s weird to think safety Jimmie Ward is now the longest-tenured member of the San Francisco 49ers.

But that’s now the case.

The Round 1 pick out of the 2014 NFL Draft, who had an up-and-down start to his NFL career amid a slew of different head coaches and schemes, now finds himself the elder statesman, not just of the defense, but of the entire roster heading into 2021.

And while Ward has also dealt with a pretty extensive injury history over his career, the last two seasons have revealed generally healthy versions of Ward, and he’s been productive as the back end of the defense.

Jimmie Ward Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 7/15/2021.

Previous editions of Niners teams haven’t necessarily featured the 30-year-old Ward as a team leader. But with cornerback Richard Sherman no longer in the picture, San Francisco will be looking to Ward to be that vocal leader in the locker room.

Especially among some of the younger members of the 49ers defense.

Yet Ward will still want to showcase his value to the Niners this season and beyond, and there are reasons to suspect he could gain even more recognition this season.

Let’s dive deeper.

Why Jimmie Ward improves with 49ers in 2021

Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has suggested his defense will be much more aggressive in 2021.

This doesn’t necessarily mean much, because coachspeak is what it is. But it’s possible Ward winds up being featured on more blitz packages, not just from a free safety spot but perhaps as a nickel defender.

That’s one way to maximize Ward’s impact, but the big thing San Francisco fans will want to be looking at will be those interceptions, which have been elusive the last four years.

Pro Football Focus awarded Ward a 73.5 overall grade last year, and he had an elite-level 84.2 grade the year before during the 49ers’ Super Bowl run.

So, we know Ward can be effective in this role, if he stays healthy. And he might be a case example of a player who merely took a few years to bloom properly before finally hitting his stride.

And he looks like he’s in that stride now.

Why Jimmie Ward regresses with 49ers in 2021

The Niners have two, probably three cornerbacks in place: Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley, meaning Ward should be playing behind some experienced defensive backs, who’ll make his life easier.

But Verrett and Williams also have injury concerns, and Moseley isn’t quite a true starter. Should San Francisco be forced to test its cornerback depth a lot this season, Ward might be put into a position where he’s under much more pressure to make up for some of his defensive backfield members’ mistakes.

Assisting with those gaffes, as Ward had to do on that now-infamous 3rd-and-15 play in Super Bowl LIV when Moseley was out of position, don’t look pretty.

Even if they’re not truly Ward’s fault.

How 49ers will use Jimmie Ward as a leader

Playing well on the field is only going to be a part of Ward’s duties this season.

Judging by his comments, Ward is already preparing himself to embrace the role of being a leader and mentor this season, as he pointed out via Niners Nation:

"If I gotta be an a**hole, I know I gotta do it. If I gotta be an a**hole, I’ll be an a**hole. If I gotta be a big brother, I’ll be a big brother. If I gotta be a coach, I’ll be a coach. But, I can’t do none of that if I don’t lead by example."

This might come off well for some of the younger members of the 49ers secondary, especially those who may be tasked with playing multiple positions like Ward did early in his career.

Read More: 3 differences DeMeco Ryans may implement with Niners defense

Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir could be tabbed as either a boundary or nickel cornerback, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him play some free safety, too. Strong safety Talanoa Hufanga might be a strong-side linebacker at times, too, while third-round rookie Ambry Thomas might be tabbed as the Niners’ next boundary cornerback but could play on the inside early.

It’ll be Ward’s job to set the tone, both in the locker room and on the field.

And judging by his performances the last two years, San Francisco can both hope and expect him to deliver in both regards.

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