SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- At the start of the offseason, the San Francisco 49ers had multiple roster needs, limited by salary-cap resources and a handful of free agents they wanted to keep who were expected to land big-money deals.
After evaluating the options, the Niners concluded that they had enough cap space for only one major free agent. And though it was going to cost them valuable players such as guard Laken Tomlinson and defensive tackle D.J. Jones, coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch knew there was one premium position that needed a significant upgrade: Cornerback.
The player San Francisco quickly honed in on was cornerback Charvarius Ward, an unrestricted free agent from the Kansas City Chiefs who had gotten better in each of his four seasons, was about to turn 26 and had all the makings of the No. 1 corner who could elevate the defense from good to great.
Which is why they signed him to the largest contract they've given to a cornerback since Shanahan and Lynch took over in 2017.
"That's what we hoped he could be," Shanahan said of their desire for Ward to be their top corner. "I think that's so hard in free agency. We've kind of looked at that almost every year. And when you get into free agency, the money gets so high, and his did too, but to see the player with that money we thought it would be worth it. ... It took us awhile to be able to do that, but when you do take a swing, you hope you hit and I really feel like we have."
The 4-4 Niners' Sunday night game against the Los Angeles Chargers (8:20 p.m. ET, Levi's Stadium, NBC) should have been a matchup of the league's two biggest free agent cornerback additions. Alas, Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson is out for the season with a torn right patella tendon. Meanwhile, Ward has been worth every penny of the three-year deal worth up to $40.5 million he signed in March so far.
In Ward's first eight games in San Francisco, he has an interception and eight passes defended (tied for sixth in the NFL). He has been targeted 38 times as the nearest defender and yielded 20 receptions for 264 yards with no touchdowns allowed for a passer rating of 63.9 on 225 coverage snaps.
Those numbers would be even better had Ward not been slowed by a hamstring injury in a Week 7 loss to the Chiefs in which he allowed seven receptions for 122 yards on nine targets.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, since 2021, Ward has allowed 2.1 yards of target separation, forced 40% of targets into tight windows and allowed a completion rate of 46.5% -- which ranks second, first and first, respectively, among defenders targeted a minimum of 50 times.
"He's been everything that we could have hoped for," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "He's really challenged guys to become better. ... You don't know when you get guys in free agency because it's different from the draft process where you're interviewing and you're spending a lot of time meeting with these guys. It's different with the free-agent process, so we were lucky to get a great guy and a great player all in one."
Ward hoped to stay in Kansas City, and the Chiefs wanted to keep him, but in an offseason where they had to make several tough financial decisions, the Chiefs couldn't make it work.
"They didn't have the [money]," Ward said. "They wanted me to stay, but like I said, they didn't have a bag, though. Sadly."
Armed with sufficiently sized "bag" for Ward, the Niners believe they've landed a top corner capable of filling the void left behind by Richard Sherman circa 2019. It's no coincidence that 2019 saw the best 49ers defense since Shanahan took over, and while they've had some good units since, cornerback was the position that had prevented the Niners defense from returning to elite status.
The Niners' belief in Ward ran so deep that they surprised many outside observers with their lucrative offer. It was a large price tag for a player who had only had four interceptions and hadn't made a Pro Bowl in Kansas City.
While the standard numbers weren't flashy, the Niners saw a physical, press corner who was still ascending, possessed the ability to play man and zone coverage equally well and was a sure tackler.
In the Niners, Ward saw the opportunity to play for Ryans, whom he says allows him to "play free and aggressive," continue to compete for Super Bowls and ascend to the top of the cornerback depth chart for the first time in his young career.
"I always wanted to take on the challenge of being like CB1," Ward said. "I don't know if they viewed me as being that guy in Kansas City. ... With the way they paid me [here], I'm pretty sure they wanted me to be CB1."
Indeed, Ward was brought in to stabilize a defense that cycled through eight starters at corner in 2021. The musical chairs left the Niners ranked sixth in the league in passing yards allowed but 29th in completion percentage allowed (68.3%) and 26th in opponent QBR (51.3) while also having the most defensive pass interference penalties (20) and defensive pass interference penalty yards (367).
Ward, who prefers to go by his childhood nickname "Mooney," has the aggressive, physical approach the Niners covet.
"He fits perfectly into what we do," linebacker Fred Warner said. "He's a 49er in every way."
The season-ending knee injury to fellow cornerback Emmanuel Moseley means Ward has taken on even greater importance as the stabilizing force on his side of the field while young corners like Deommodore Lenoir, Ambry Thomas and Samuel Womack III fill in for Moseley.
That's fine by Ward, who has designs on earning recognition not just as the Niners' top corner but one of the best anywhere.
"I want to prove that I'm one of the best corners in the league," Ward said. "I'm kind of like tired of flying under the radar, you know? I feel I've got some of the best cover skills in the NFL, and so I feel like I should be a Pro Bowl corner, maybe an All-Pro corner, if I keep on balling this year."