SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The 2017 NFL season was supposed to be the year that San Francisco 49ers free safety Jimmie Ward enjoyed a breakthrough that would land him in the conversation among the league's most dynamic young defensive backs.
After all, Ward was finally moving to safety after spending most of his NFL career at cornerback -- with mixed results. Ward had played free safety in college and many believed he was best suited for the spot. In new coordinator Robert Saleh's scheme, Ward would play the single-high safety role that Earl Thomas handles for the Seattle Seahawks.
Visions of big plays and Ward realizing his potential danced in the heads of the Niners' coaching staff. Alas, the same thing that had held Ward back during his first three seasons again shut him down: injury.
This time, it was a broken forearm suffered in Week 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles. In previous seasons, it had been a broken foot and a broken collarbone. Added together, Ward has missed 22 games. And he has played a full season just once, in 2015.
“You can try to prevent things in football, but I think that’s just part of the game," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. "You still have to make tackles at corner. You still have to make tackles at nickelback. You have to do it all over the place. Injuries have happened there, also. We’re going to try to get Jimmie back here to be the best player he can be, then you let that handle itself.
"But I love that he can play all the positions -- but I want to make sure that we find the best spot for Jimmie, for him, and for our team.”
On the surface, finding the best spot for Ward might seem like an important thing but probably not a priority. As a domino that could lead to other moves and alter the way the 49ers approach their offseason, however, it's actually a key piece of the puzzle.
Last summer, the 49ers opted to exercise the fifth-year option they had on Ward as a former first-round pick. At the time, Ward was categorized as a cornerback because it's what he had played most recently. Due to that, Ward's scheduled salary for the 2018 season is a whopping $8.526 million.
Had Ward managed to stay healthy and logged a big season, that price wouldn't lead anyone to blink. But Ward's injury history makes it more of a difficult pill to swallow. Still, the Niners are set to have more than $100 million in salary cap space next season, a figure that already takes into account Ward's salary.
Theoretically, the 49ers could decide to negotiate a short extension that would pay Ward that type of guaranteed money over multiple years or they could move forward with the idea of wanting to see him stay healthy and prove himself over the course of a season.
Of course, before that can happen, the Niners must first figure out his position. San Francisco undoubtedly has a need for cornerback help opposite Ahkello Witherspoon, and with rookie Adrian Colbert coming on strong in Ward's stead near the end of the season, the Niners could move Ward back to corner and install Colbert as the free safety.
Before the Niners set about spending an early draft pick or big money on a cornerback (something they're all but certain to do, either way), they need to figure out where Ward fits now and in their long-term plans.
On the other hand, Colbert had a relatively small sample size and Ward doesn't exactly fit as an outside cornerback in Saleh's scheme. While Ward is capable at corner, some in the organization believe he could be a difference-maker at safety.
“We like Jimmie Ward," general manager John Lynch said. "We like the versatility that he brings to this team. We like the mindset that he brings. He’s a tough football player. I’ve seen players before have a run of injuries early in their career and somehow they figure something out and they get through it. Hopefully, that can be the case for him. We’ll figure all that out, but we’re excited to have Jimmie back and plan on him being a big-time contributor to this team.”