SANTA CLARA, California. During the first four and a half seasons of his career, San Francisco 49ers defenseman Jimmy Ward managed to avoid at least one harsh reality of life in the NFL: the league’s non-stop rumor mill. By that point, Ward had gone through his share of adversity, mostly in the form of injuries and an ever-changing role, but managed to hang on to the only team he had ever known.

Things looked like this was about to change just before Halloween 2018, when Ward, who had largely resisted the urge to use various social media platforms, stood on the podium answering questions from reporters when asked about rumors that he was available for sharing. .

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“I said, “Really? No, I didn’t know that,” Ward said. “It was funny, but that’s how I found out.”

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What was unpleasant at the time was sort of a turning point in his career, allowing Ward to see the game from a new angle. When Ward returns from a hamstring injury, either Sunday at the Carolina Panthers (4:05 pm EST, CBS) or in the very near future, he will step into a role almost no one could have imagined for him at the beginning of his career: San Francisco’s longest running player.

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Ward is entering his ninth NFL season, and it’s all for the team that spent the 30th pick on him in the 2014 NFL Draft. If Ward lives to see 2022 and signs at least another one-year contract with the Niners, he’ll earn a spot at the team’s 10-year-old club, a hallowed spot reserved for photographs of those who play at least a full decade for the team. Joe Staley is the most recent addition to the wall, but it also includes all-time legends like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young and Ronnie Lott. Ward is painfully close to joining this all-star group.

“It will mean a lot,” Ward said. “However, it is difficult to get there. You know, it would be different if I had one more year on my contract, but I don’t have one. I may or may not do it, who knows? Let’s see”.

Over the past three years, Ward has finally found recognition outside the 49ers’ base as well. This is evident in the titles he has added to his resume: starting free guard, team captain, and one of the NFL’s Top 100 Players (No. 96 on the NFL Network), the latter two of which are new titles for him.

For a player who missed 31 games and bounced between outside corner, nickel corner and loose safety under four different defensive coordinators in his first five seasons, Ward has finally found his best position, big injury luck (despite a recent hamstring problem). tendon) and voice. this made him one of the team’s most respected veterans and a ruthless windbag.

“When I first got here, Jimmy didn’t say much on the field, but I see him playing more of a leadership role now,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. “He will be consistent. He will rush to the ball. He will be ruthless. He will compete every single day… He is one of the best defenders in this league.”

With the possible exceptions of linebacker Fred Warner and defensive line coach Chris Kochurek, no voice sounds like Ward’s on the training field. Ward even became more visible on social media, offering criticism and trash talk of Seahawks wide receiver D.C. Metcalfe, free agents, free agents Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, and tight end Chiefs Travis Kelsey. other. In May, Ward even went so far as to say that he was “not very likable” and that he could “talk his own shit because I’ll back it up.”

Ward’s teammates are not immune to his verbal punches. Throughout the off-season and during training camp, Ward relentlessly baited Niners quarterback Trey Lance, constantly reminding him of the dangers of changing direction. Mixed in with trash talk, that’s a lot of advice for his younger teammates. Warner turns to Ward for advice and guidance on how to excel at covering people, strongback Talanoa Hoofang’s sophomore admires Ward’s confidence and crowd control and safety. Daniel Bullocks believes that Ward has the makings of a future coach.

“He set the standard in this security room,” Bullocks said.

According to Ward, this standard goes beyond the Bay Area.

“I feel like I’m one of the best defensemen in the league, but I just need to get hit,” Ward said. “In addition to turnovers, I consider myself in the top five in many categories.”

The fact that Ward is just as close to the 49ers’ hallowed ground is a testament to his refusal to be abandoned like so many players who went through the cycle before the arrival of Shanahan and Lynch in 2017. At the time, Ward was skeptical about another change in coach. , as Shanahan was the fourth head coach of the Niners in as many seasons, and general manager Trent Baalke, the man who chose him, also left.

Ward knew he didn’t have justice with the new Nine mode, noting that he didn’t think Shanahan or Lynch “believed in a lot of the players” who were left over from 2016. But Ward got at least one significant vote of confidence before playing for Shanahan. and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh: The Niners exercised his fifth-year option, guaranteeing him more than $8.5 million in 2018. While Ward appreciated the gesture, he later cited it as a reason to stay with the Niners for less money than other teams. were offered in 2019 and 2020 – the decision by Saleh and Shanahan to move him full-time to a safe location was most resonant.

Ward’s hard-hitting style caught the attention of the Nine, but also resulted in injuries, including a fractured forearm and forearm fracture in 2017 and 2018, respectively. These injuries limited him to 16 games in those two seasons and sparked pesky trade rumors. Since he first heard his name in trade negotiations, Ward didn’t know who to believe. He felt there was some truth to this, but Lynch went to Ward after the awkward press conference and quickly assured him that he was not being changed. Ward hasn’t forgotten that feeling.

“I never feel safe every year,” Ward said. “You see all the injuries that happen every day. You never know when this could be your last game… I don’t let it affect me on the field and how I treat people.”

While healthy in 2019, Ward made 60 tackles, sacks and eight passes in 13 games. He headed for unlimited free agency, where he turned down a better offer from the Las Vegas Raiders to stay with the Niners. For the first time in his career, Ward felt right at home, signing a three-year, $28.5 million contract that expires after this season.

Shanahan’s belief in Ward was based on the idea that most of his injuries were accidents rather than nasty problems. Ward has since become Shanahan’s favorite, repeatedly saying that if he could wear any 49ers jersey, it would be Ward’s.

“He’s been our best defender the whole time we’ve been here,” Shanahan said. “And the only thing holding him back was injuries… When he stays healthy, everyone sees what kind of player he is.”

And what a tool he has become.