The 49ers have numerous free agents and not a ton of cap space with which to re-sign them. What San Francisco chooses to do with safety Jimmie Ward could either add to the 49ers' coffers, or further deplete them -- significantly.
Ward is an unrestricted free agent and coming off a career-year in which he totaled 65 tackles, 1.0 sack and eight passes defensed across 13 regular-season games, all starts. He also was a critical part of the team's NFL playoff run, starting all three games and forcing a fumble in the Super Bowl.
He signed a one-year, $5 million contract last offseason, a price that was somewhat depressed due to his injury history. Ward then missed the first three games of the season with a fractured finger, leading to more of the same criticism he had dealt with through the first five seasons of his NFL career. He returned in Week 4, however, and played the rest of the way, putting forth a productive season that might put him out of San Francisco's reach on the free-agent market.
If the 49ers move on from Ward this offseason, they have options, both internal and external, to replace him with. Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox recently laid out his most realistic dream signing for every NFL team in free agency, and when it comes to potentially replacing Ward, he believes Damarious Randall is who San Francisco should target.
"If the 49ers allow Ward to walk, Damarious Randall would be a good replacement," Knox wrote. "He's just 27 years old and has 47 passes defended and 14 interceptions in five seasons. His ball-hawking ability and versatility -- he played cornerback for three seasons with the Packers -- would mesh nicely with Robert Saleh's defense."
For the reasons Knox described, Randall would make plenty of sense for San Francisco if it turns out there's an opening at free safety. While he is almost identical in size to Ward, he's one year younger and has been both more productive and more dependable throughout his career. Despite entering the NFL a year after Ward, Randall has appeared in and started more games, and has recorded considerably more interceptions (14 to two) and tackles (290 to 251) over his five seasons with the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns.
Randall is an unrestricted free agent after playing last season on his fifth-year option, but might be hitting the market at the wrong time -- for him, at least. He is coming off a down year, and Ward's numbers last season, for instance, were better across the board. Consequently, Randall is likely to fall lower in the free safety free-agent hierarchy. That, however, might increase the likelihood that he would be a fit with San Francisco.
Given the 49ers' dearth of cap space, they're going to need to find some diamonds in the rough. Randall wasn't great last season, but his track record leads one to believe he could fit that description.