The 49ers recognized they needed to improve the secondary this offseason and did so with a big-ticket move that flew somewhat under the radar.
Cornerback Charvarius Ward arrived on the second-largest cornerback deal of free agency. His three-year, $40.5 million deal was topped only by J.C. Jackson – who penned a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Chargers – but generated comparatively little buzz.
That is not much of a surprise given the disparity in the numbers, but there is statistical evidence to suggest that in inking Ward to a contract worth $13.5 million per year – tied for the 13th-highest average at his position per Over The Cap – the Niners may have pulled off one of the most astute signings of the offseason.
Ward allowed a completion percentage of 51.3 in his final season with the Chiefs, the eighth best among corners with at least 50 targets according to Pro Football Reference. While it is very early days in his 49ers career, Ward’s performances in the first practices of training camp have lent credence to the hope he could be the final piece of the puzzle for an often maligned but talented secondary.
He has already received widespread praise for his coverage across the first two practice days and, speaking on Thursday, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans hailed the impact Ward has had while still in the infancy of his 49er career.
“He’s come in and done exactly everything we’ve asked him to do,” Ryans said about the new CB. “He’s competitive, he competes every day. He’s always challenging the guys across from him, challenging the guys in the room. So, it has raised our competition level in the DB room and I’m happy to have that. The more competition, I think the better all those guys get, so that’s what Charvarius has done. He’s raised the level of competition in there and guys know they have to step up, rise to his level.”
A factor behind Ward’s signing was his strength in one-on-one coverage, which should allow the Niners to be more aggressive on defense and utilize more man coverage.
Aggression has long since been a part of Ward’s game, which has seen him play a lot of physical press coverage. Asked what makes Ward such an impressive press corner, Ryans had an extensive list.
“I think first off, it’s just his mindset,” Ryans said. “You want to talk about press corners. It’s just the mindset to be able to get up there and press some of the top guys in the NFL, he’s done it at a high level and he’s not afraid. He’s confident, he has the skill set, he has the athletic ability, he has the speed, the foot quickness to keep up with guys, so that’s what makes him a good corner. First and foremost, is the mindset and the confidence you have to have when you’re on the island. He has all the confidence he needs to go out and be a dominant corner.”
Ward has already flashed dominance in training camp after developing into an extremely stingy corner with the Chiefs. Playing behind the Niners’ loaded defensive front, Ward has the chance to reach new heights as part of a secondary Richard Sherman believes could be mentioned among the league’s best come the end of the year.
Elite defensive play is difficult to maintain year over year. However, if he allows a San Francisco secondary that thrived down the stretch and in the playoffs last season through their precision and discipline in zone coverage to excel to similar levels in man coverage, Ward’s signing could be one that helps Ryans’ defense become the most complete in the NFL.