Charvarius Ward [608x342]
Charvarius Ward [608x342] (Credit: Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Love won t practice without deal Pack optimistic

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the midst of the best season of his six-year career, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward was in pain.

By Ward's estimate, the aching in his core and lower back began about four years earlier when he was still a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. Not wanting to derail his path to a life-changing contract that would eventually come from the Niners, Ward played through it, establishing himself as one of the league's best all-around corners.

Finally, last season, as Ward finished tied for fourth in the NFL in interceptions (five) and first in pass breakups (23) on his way to his first Pro Bowl nod and a second team All Pro spot, the realization struck that if he wanted to be at his best, he would need to get back to full strength.

"My body was just aching," Ward said. "Once my back started hurting -- I'm only mid-twenties -- It felt like I was 35, 40. I had to get it done when that started happening."

So after the Niners' season ended with a loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII, Ward had the core muscle surgery he had been putting off for years. The procedure kept Ward out for all of the team's offseason program, though he was around for rehab and is expected to be ready to go when training camp opens at the end of July.

All of which gives Ward reason to believe that he could actually improve upon his best season as he heads into the final season of the three-year, $40.5 million contract he signed with the Niners in 2022. If that happens, Ward, who is one of San Francisco's most important pending free agents, could become exceedingly difficult for the Niners to keep around long term.

That isn't to say Ward wouldn't like to continue in San Francisco, just that his price tag might go to places the Niners can't afford as they look to an offseason in which they're planning to pay quarterback Brock Purdy and have other important free agents such as cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, safety Talanoa Hufanga and guard Aaron Banks to worry about.

"I would say there isn't any [players] who are going to be free agents that we don't want around here," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "We've got some good players. We've built a good roster. And you can't keep everybody around. But the guys that you're asking about, they're as much on our mind as anyone."

On a team where many of the top stars have already signed lucrative contracts, the Niners have much to consider when it comes to planning for the future. They're already in the midst of negotiations with wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who tops the list of pending free agents the team is aiming to keep.

But if Aiyuk is the top priority, Ward isn't far behind. While Ward has long been regarded as one of the league's best corners, he erased any doubt in 2023 with a performance that cemented him in that group.

Beyond his knack for making plays on the ball, Ward was sticky in coverage, limiting opposing passers to a rating of just 71.8, which ranked 14th among all cornerbacks with at least 150 coverage snaps. Ward was also unafraid to offer a physical presence defending the run. He finished with 72 tackles, which was tied for 16th among all cornerbacks. It's something that jumped out to new defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen when evaluating Ward's performance.

"He had great numbers, he had production, but we always knew he was really tough," Sorensen said. "I think it gets overlooked that he's a tough player as far as how he tackles. He's a really good tackler, which is essential in our defense. We ask a lot of our corners. Everyone has got to be able to tackle, run and hit, be physical, be violent. He does that and it was just good to see how he got some recognition this year."

Despite all that production, Ward believes he left plenty of big plays on the table. Between pass breakups and interceptions, Ward got at least one hand on the ball 28 times. In 2024, he'd like to keep turning more of those PBUs into INTs.

"I feel like I could have had almost 10 interceptions last year," Ward said. "I want to just make more plays, try to become more of a leader, more of a talker. I'm kind of the old head of the DB group now, so come over, make more plays, be better than I was last year."

If Ward is able to make that happen, he could become one of the most coveted free agents on the market at a premium position. At the time of his signing in San Francisco, Ward's $13.5 million annual average salary was the largest deal the Niners had ever given to a corner.

But as wide receiver contracts continue to rise, it stands to reason the same will happen for the guys tasked with covering them. Nine cornerbacks have deals averaging more money per season than Ward, with eight of them making at least $19 million per season.

Another appearance on one of the All Pro teams would make it difficult to argue that Ward shouldn't break through into that financial stratosphere. In his ideal world, that type of contract would keep him in San Francisco though he's well aware that might not happen.

"I'd like to stick around," Ward said. "I feel like it's a good team. They love me here. I love it here. I love all the coaches, love my teammates, but I just let my agent handle it. That's the business side of things. I'm just gonna do my job, go out there and ball, put the pressure on them and hopefully they give me a bag.

"If they don't, I know it won't be like any bad blood between me and them. It's just like it'll be a business decision, but I'm pretty sure they would like to have me. I'd like to stay here for sure."