What Should the 49ers do With Pending Free Agent Jimmy Ward?

Matt Holder

Last week, I wrote about what the San Francisco 49ers should do with soon-to-be free agent Arik Armstead. Continuing with this theme, here we will take a look at the 49ers’ options in regards to defensive back, Jimmie Ward.

Like Armstead, Ward’s contract expires when the new year officially starts for the NFL in March, and he put together his most impressive season in 2019. The six-year pro allowed a measly 172 passing yards and 5.5 yards per target this past season. He also posted career-high overall, run defense, and coverage grades in Pro Football Focus’ system.

However, also along the same lines as the defensive lineman, the defensive back’s play throughout his career has been less than ideal and plagued with injuries. 2015 is the only season where Ward participated in all 16 regular-season contests, and he even missed the first three games of 2019 with a broken collarbone. 

The combination of sub-par play throughout his career and the significant amount of games missed has to weigh on the minds of general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan.

As with every pending free-agent, those two have three options when it comes to Ward: the franchise tag, a contract extension, and letting him walk. Below is a look at the pros and cons of each.

Franchise Tag

Many people would argue that the franchise tag is perfect for this situation. For the team, it buys another year to evaluate the player and see if he can replicate his career season. And for the player, he gets paid quite handsomely for the year.

If San Francisco decides to go this route, the former first-round pick will make about $12.7 million according to OverTheCap.com. That amount fits within the 49ers’ projected cap space, and would certainly peak Ward’s interests who played on a one-year $4.5 million contract this past season. However, the tag does come with a handful of issues.

Teams can only apply this designation to one player per year, so using the franchise tag on Ward takes that option off the table when it comes to Armstead. The latter plays a much more important position and arguably, had a better season than the former. If slapping the tag on the defensive back alters Lynch and Shanahan’s approach to negotiations with the defensive lineman, it’s probably best to avoid that route.

There also is the issue of how much Ward is worth. The $12.7 million figure would put him among the likes of Earl Thomas and Reshad Jones in terms of pay. The Northern Illinois product is nowhere near the pedigree of those two and he would instantly become one of the most overpaid players in the league.

Also, while the dollar figure is nice, there is no guarantee that Ward would want to play on this type of contract after agreeing to a one-year deal last offseason. He may not have another option but from his perspective, he was given a “prove-it” deal, did exactly that and now its time for some long-term security. As any human resources professional will point out, keeping employees happy is a major factor in running a successful business.

Contract Extension

The ultimate goal for every professional athlete is to make as much money for as long as possible. Meanwhile, organizations strive to keep good players in the building to, of course, win championships. Contract extensions are how the two sides continue to have a healthy relationship, however, dysfunction ensues when one side doesn’t hold up his or her end of the bargain.

In a perfect world, San Francisco and Ward will agree to a new contract for the next four or five years and the latter continues to play at the high level he showed this past season. What complicates matters is the veteran has a history of under-performing and missing games due to injury. This will make the organization gun shy when it comes to offering him a long-term deal and justifiably so.

Hitching your wagons to a player who has played poorly more often than he has played well, and struggles to stay on the field is a large risk for the organization. Also, if earning a lengthy contract was what motivated Ward to put together an impressive campaign in 2019, how will he maintain that drive in 2020 and beyond?

Ultimately, with how expensive the franchise tag would be, agreeing to a new deal multi-year would be the best option for the Red and Gold if it wants to keep Ward around. The positives? The team retains a player who was an integral piece of its Super Bowl run and sends a good message to the other players that the organization is willing to take care of its own.

Let him walk

Sometimes indecisiveness is the best decision one can make.

If the 49ers are unsure of how valuable the safety is, the organization can let him test free agency and see what kind of offers he receives. This would allow Lynch and Shanahan to gauge what other teams feel Ward is worth and essentially put a price tag on him. Whatever offers the defensive back receives, San Francisco would have the opportunity to either match, beat, or determine that he’s just too expensive.

Probably the biggest issue with this option is if the six-year pro feels disrespected and is no longer willing to engage in negotiations with the club. Obviously, that would throw a wrench into this plan.

Also, there is the problem of Ward hitting the open market and liking one team’s situation over the 49ers’ and opting to sign with the other suitor. In that case, if he goes on to be a significant contributor for his new squad there will be a ton of regret in San Francisco.

At the end of the day, the Red and Gold’s cap situation is very restricting and it will be impossible to keep the entire NFC Championship team together. Someone’s got to go and it may end up being the team’s starting free safety.

My Take

Just as I mentioned when discussing Armstead’s situation, by no means is this meant to be a prediction and is simply just my opinion on the matter.

If I’m calling the shots, I would try to work out a two- or three-year contract extension in the range of six to seven million dollars per year. An added bonus, from the organization’s perspective, would be if the deal is incentive-based centered around the number of games Ward plays.

This type of contract would put Ward in a similar category as Bobby McCain, Ricardo Allen, and Jaquiski Tartt in terms of salary per year. A three-year deal wouldn’t have a terribly lingering effect on the organization in the event that the defensive back regresses to his old form, and gives him some financial security for a decent amount of time. Also, the 49ers wouldn’t be crippling their cap space and can still get rid of some dead weight in order to pursue a few free agents to address other needs.

The franchise tag is not viable as it’s a ridiculous price to pay for the defensive back and limits the team’s options with it’s most important impending free agent, Arik Armstead. Letting Ward test the open market isn’t a terrible idea if negotiations between him and the club aren’t going well. However, it’s a major risk and replacing him won’t be simple.

With the organization’s limited cap space, it will be difficult to find a safety who is cheaper and just as good as the former first-round pick in free agency. As far as the draft goes, PFF’s lead draft analyst, Mike Renner, ranked this year’s safety class the 10th strongest position group out of 11. San Francisco’s first selection in April will be 31st overall, so the top guys likely won’t be available and trading up will be difficult with no picks in the second, third, and fourth rounds.

Ultimately, retaining Jimmie Ward is the organization’s best option as that move will keep the team’s defense intact as they continue their quest for six.

Comments (2)

Keep Ward over Armstead? Come on. A great pass rush can make any safety look talented. Not saying Ward isn't good, but his impact is not the same as Armstead.

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I don't think retaining Ward is as critical as Armstead. Tarvarius Moore showed some promise last season.