When the 49ers drafted Jimmie Ward with their first pick in 2014, some analysts questioned the decision.
Ward, after all, was a hybrid defensive back -- part safety and part cornerback – without a true position. He played at Northern Illinois – not a college powerhouse – and would be taking a big step up to NFL-caliber competition.
He played just eight games as a rookie and at one point early in his career, Ward was labeled a "bust" by some critics because of the injuries that kept him off the field and his shaky play when he was suited up.
Back in 2016, Ward acknowledged he’d had a rocky start in the NFL but was trying to make an impact.
"Coming off my rookie year, being hurt, you kind of lose confidence," he told a reporter. "But I worked real hard, stayed in the film room to try and build that back up."
But Ward, who just completed his sixth season with the Niners, has proven his worth. When Ward was on the field for the 49ers in 2019, the defense was better. Ward was an impact player at free safety. He played in 13 regular-season games, had eight deflected passes, a sack and was in on 60 tackles. In three postseason games he was in on 17 tackles and had a forced fumble.
When the season was over, Ward was given high marks by the analytic website Pro Football Focus, which placed him at No. 54 on its Top 100 list of players in the NFL in 2019.
Ward can become an unrestricted free agent – one of several key players the 49ers could lose – and the franchise will need to determine if it can afford to keep Ward, who is still only 28. It certainly sounds like Ward would like to remain with the team, especially now that it’s been built into an NFC power again.
"This is a team I’d love to play for," Ward told the team’s website. "They drafted me. I got injured a couple of years and they still gave me an opportunity to show what I could do. I ended up getting 16 games this year – it was a little different, but I got it. But it’s a lot of interest right now from both ways. But they (49ers) get the upper hand right now because I do want to be in California."
Though Peter Panacy of Fansided’s Niner Noise noted the team must also decide whether to spend to keep defensive lineman Arik Armstead and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, he argues keeping Ward may be the top priority.
Wrote Panacy: "San Francisco’s defense was solidified on the back end by Ward’s presence in arguably coordinator Robert Saleh’s second-most important position behind a weak-side edge rusher, free safety. And in this role, Ward performed exceptionally well."
This year’s free-agent signing period is set to begin on March 18.