49ers should extend this player before Brandon Aiyuk

While the entire NFL world seems to be focused on Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers are in danger of missing the wood for the trees.
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward (7)
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward (7) / Cooper Neill/GettyImages

If you're a San Francisco 49ers fan right now, you're probably reading about nothing but wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

Aiyuk's posts on social media. Aiyuk speculation from insiders. Guesses at possible Aiyuk contracts.

And so on, and so forth.

Listen long enough, and it's not unlike hearing the janitor from Scrubs talking about his janitor wife and janitor kids.

The strangest thing about it is that, with all the noise and focus on Aiyuk, the Niners are in danger of missing out on extending a player who is arguably more vital to the team's long-term success, particularly as that player also enters the last year of his contract at the same time as Aiyuk but without the same fanfare.

That player? Cornerback Charvarius Ward.

Ward came to the 49ers in free agency in 2022, signing a three-year, $42 million deal. Since signing, he's played two full seasons, recorded six interceptions, and played and started in six playoff games.

He is, however, a classic example of a player for whom the stats don't tell the full story.

After many years of trying different routes to improve the cornerback position in the head coach Kyle Shanahan regime, including signing big free agents like Richard Sherman and drafting Ahkello Witherspoon and Ambry Thomas in the early rounds of the NFL Draft, Ward represented an actual solid, long-term solution at the position.

Moreover, while he was considered to be an under-the-radar free agent when signed, if anything, his play has improved since coming to the Bay Area. Rather than occasional flashes of good play like Witherspoon and Thomas, or a short-term plug like Sherman, Ward has provided consistent, solid play throughout his time with the team, being ranked the No. 3 cornerback in the league by Pro Football Focus by writer John Kosko, recently.

Again, though, while the stats are good, some things are unquantifiable, and where Ward benefits San Francisco most is in his improvements to the team, schematically. In a division where the team matches up with the likes of wide receivers D,K, Metcalf and Cooper Kupp, among others, Ward provides security and is of huge benefit to the defensive coaching staff, given that his hard-nosed, lockdown play removes the requirement for a play-caller to delve into a box of tricks, such as exotic blitzes or unusual coverage shifts, to protect the team against big plays.

With all this in mind, the 49ers must keep Ward and should be prioritising that over Aiyuk.

Extending Charvarius Ward should be 49ers' top priority

The first reason is relatively simple: He's played at a top level for longer than Aiyuk has. While Aiyuk has probably had around one and a half good seasons, Ward's had five good seasons out of his six in the league, and two excellent ones with San Francisco. He's also 28 and entering his prime.

While corners aren't cheap to pay in the NFL, given the recent explosion in wide receiver contracts with big deals handed out to the likes of Jalen Waddle, Amon Ra Saint-Brown and Justin Jefferson, the corner market remains relatively stagnant, meaning that retaining Ward is likely to be cheaper (and possibly less complicated at this point) than retaining Aiyuk.

The biggest reason, though, is the reality of the 49ers' team-building strategy, scheme, and roster construction. As already mentioned, the Niners have continually and often swung and missed at cornerback, particularly in the draft. Thomas remains on the fringes of the roster many years after being drafted, while the likes of Witherspoon and D.J. Reed are long gone. Deommodore Lenoir has been a qualified success, although as it stands, he is also entering his last year with the team as well. Recently drafted Renardo Green has drawn positive reviews early on, but he's still a rookie.

Beyond that, the position's rounded out with a number of fliers on one-year deals.

The 49ers could well have a problem coming at cornerback. Losing Ward, Lenoir, or both, would immediately leave the team without a starting-calibre corner going into 2025. Given Lenoir's inconsistency, and since he's possibly better in the slot, the easiest way to buttress the more important boundary corner position in the short-to-medium term is to keep a player the quality of Ward.

That's not true at receiver.

Deebo Samuel is arguably as good as (and at times has been better than) Aiyuk, while Jauan Jennings has also signed for the medium-term. Throw in rookie receivers Ricky Pearsall and Jacob Cowing, and San Francisco seems somewhat set for the long term, even if Aiyuk does leave after this season, especially if the team can work a deal with Samuel, who is arguably a better fit for the Shanahan scheme, given his versatility.

Moreover, does a Shanahan offense need two All-Pro receivers, a first-round pick, a gritty slot receiver (with a possible rookie replacement behind him), an All-Pro tight end, a top-10 quarterback, and the best running back in the league?

It's definitely a nice thing to have, but let's be honest, an offensive mind like Shanahan can generate yardage and points from far less talented, and far less well-paid, pass catchers. Hell, he even got now-New England Patriots wideout Kendrick Bourne paid.

Corner, on the other hand and as previously explained, has proven to be a difficult position to fill.

Frankly, it's hard to have the same faith in the 49ers front office producing the same production per dollar at cornerback (or any defensive position, come to that) as it is on offense. If dollars are tight, and let's face it, they always are in a salary-capped sport, that's where the money should go, along with quarterback. The focus should always be on the areas where a team finds it hardest to find stars.

That's why it's time for the 49ers to end the circus, make their best offer to Aiyuk, and move on to finding a way, any way, to re-sign Ward.

What contract extensions do you think the 49ers should be prioritising?

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