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49ers safety Jimmie Ward in limbo after career year

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The 49ers could lose their free safety during free agency.

Starter Jimmie Ward will be an unrestricted free agent on March 18 and the 49ers may not re-sign him, even though he played well in 2019. Ward became a key member of a great defense, which the 49ers would love to keep together, but they have only $13 million in cap space. Meaning they may not have the funds to re-sign everyone.

“Year one, we brought 14 free agents up here,” general manager John Lynch said. “Those days aren’t happening anymore. We can’t go to the grocery store and say, ‘I’ll have that, I’ll have that, I’ll have that.’ It is more like, ‘I’ll have that, but I might have to put that back.’ There are trade-offs. It’s tightening up. It’s important that we really take a pragmatic approach. We’d love to keep everybody, but that’s probably not likely. It just doesn’t happen in this league.”

And Ward is expendable, because his backup, Tarvarius Moore, is good and makes roughly $800,000 per season. Ward most likely will sign a two-year deal worth roughly $8 million per season with another team — he increased his value in 2019 when he earned $4.5 million. It doesn’t make sense for the 49ers to nearly double Ward’s salary when they already have Moore. Tough business.

If Ward indeed leaves, don’t forget what he meant to the 49ers. He personified the 2019 team as much as anyone. Was written off. No one expected anything from him. And he came out of nowhere.

Ward is one of the last links to the Jim Harbaugh era. The 49ers drafted Ward with a first-round pick in 2014, Harbaugh’s final season with the 49ers. Ward was part of the downfall. He didn’t play well. People considered Ward a bust because he couldn’t stay healthy or find a full-time position in five seasons with the 49ers. But he wasn’t a bust. The 49ers simply didn’t use him correctly.

Ward was a safety in college. When the 49ers drafted him, they immediately moved him to nickel back, where he struggled for two seasons. Then, in 2016, they moved him to cornerback, and he had to slim down to play make the transition. He struggled at cornerback, too, because he’s a safety.

Ward never complained to the media. He even pretended to like playing nickel and corner, just to be a good teammate. But he saw his career slipping away. And when he studied tape and saw top NFL safeties, he thought, “I’m just as good as them.” But he couldn’t prove it. He was stuck at cornerback.

Finally, in 2017, Kyle Shanahan became the 49ers’ head coach and moved Ward to free safety. Again, Ward had to change his body — this time he gained almost 15 pounds. And his body broke down. He missed nine games with a broken arm in 2017, and seven games with another broken arm in 2018.

The 49ers gave Ward one more chance, in the form of a one-year, $4.5 million contract for 2019. When they signed him, many fans were disappointed. Then Ward broke his collarbone during OTAs, and many fans rolled their eyes. They expected yet another underwhelming season from him.

Ward spent the first three games on the bench while Moore started at free safety, and Moore played well at times, but missed a few tackles. That’s the only reason the 49ers benched him and started Ward after Week 3.

Ward played the rest of the season without getting injured, and ironically was one of the most consistent players on the team. He revived his career, just as the 49ers revived their franchise.

Now Ward nears the end of his prime — he’ll turn 29 in July. He’s not an elite safety. Has picked off only two passes in his career. But he’s a legitimate NFL safety, not a corner or a nickel. He finally proved that. And he’ll be an asset for whichever team signs him this offseason.

“I haven’t talked to anybody yet,” Ward said. “I talked to my coach. My coach definitely said he wants to keep me here, but it’s not up to him. It’s further up, it’s upstairs. They have the upper hand right now because I do want to be in California. But if not, I’ll go to any team that wants me to play safety. That’s the only way I’ll sign with a team. I’m a safety first.”

Ward has taken control of his career. Good for him.

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