Veteran defensive back Jimmie Ward has been a key piece on a 49ers defence that has been historically great in recent seasons. However, a cap and roster space combination could mean that Ward will be departing the 49ers this offseason. 

Let’s take at what type of player Jimmie Ward is, the value he brought to the 49ers this past season and some potential suitors who could tempt him away from the Bay.

Jimmie Ward free agent 2023

The 49ers drafted Ward out of Northern Illinois in 2014. During his first five seasons with the ball club, Ward was a small bright spark in an otherwise dark time for the franchise. However, Ward has flourished in recent seasons and has become an integral part of a team that has made three NFC Championship games in four years.

Ward suffered a hamstring injury on the eve of the 2022 regular season resulting in veteran safety Tashaun Gipson starting the season at Ward’s natural position, free safety. Gipson thrived in the position which allowed the 49ers the luxury of moving Ward to nickel where he played the entirety of the 2022 season. 

Despite Ward playing at a very high standard, the veteran defensive back was not enthusiastic about being demoted from his preferred position. After the season, Ward shared some insight into his move to nickel. 

    

So, any potential teams looking to sign Ward in free agency should be aware of his desire to return to his natural position, however, Ward has demonstrated that he can be one of the most versatile defenders in the NFL playing as a ‘nickelback’. If Ward is to seek a big-money move, then he should embrace his flexibility.

The 49ers led the NFL with 22 interceptions this season, that’s ten more than the team registered when they made the Super Bowl in 2019, and I think Ward’s move to nickelback is a big reason.

Ward was closer to the action this season due to playing within the box, allowing him to be aggressive in pass defence in the knowledge that Gipson and Hufunga had him covered on the back end. The aggressiveness, combined with Ward’s stickiness in coverage and nose for the football, resulted in three interceptions for the safety this season.

Playing at nickel comes with its challenges. First off, playing nickel means you’re going to be facing a variety of matchups in the slot. One snap you could be covering a shifty route runner such as Hunter Renfrow, the next you could be lined up against a big-bodied tight end such as Darren Waller and that’s without mentioning you’re going to be going up against linemen and tight ends in the run game. 

However, Ward’s size combined with his athleticism makes him uniquely suited to covering receivers, tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield. Former 49ers defensive coordinator and current Texans head coach Demeco Ryans commented on Ward’s versatility this past season: “Jimmie is a unique player in the sense that Jimmie can do things that other players can’t do… He’s one of the few players in the league who can play safety and move down to the box and play nickel.”

Three potential suitors for Ward include the Buffalo Bills, the Houston Texans and the possibility of returning to the 49ers. 

    

The Texans are the most obvious destination for Ward with Demeco Ryans assuming the head coaching position there. However, 2022 first-round pick Jalen Pitre excelled in his debut season at the free safety spot for the Texans which is Ward’s natural position. Although, as we’ve seen Ward can adapt. 

The Buffalo Bills are another team that jumps to mind when predicting free agency landing spots for Ward. Veteran free safety Micah Hyde missed much of the 2022 season with a serious neck injury. Jimmie Ward would be a fantastic addition to the back end to either fight for Hyde’s place or be a key depth piece on a championship contender. 

The third possibility is Ward returning to the 49ers. However, this is perhaps the least likely of the three. With the high-level play of Gipson, who registered 7 interceptions this past season, as well as the looming future deals of Nick Bosa and Brandon Aiyuk, it would take some work for Ward to return. Moreover, the 49ers allowed Ward’s contract to void itself. If they were intent on bringing Ward back, a deal would have been worked out already. 

Ward may not be one of the premier names in the NFL, but he is a valuable asset to have on any defence and a good football player. His veteran leadership and versatility will raise the standard of any defence in the league. To sum up in Ward’s own words: “I’m good at safety and I’m good at nickel. I’m a good football player, so it’s going to help me in free agency.”

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