Is 49ers Pro Bowler Charvarius Ward the surprise top corner in the NFL playoffs?

Is 49ers Pro Bowler Charvarius Ward the surprise top corner in the NFL playoffs?

SANTA CLARA – Levi’s Stadium’s 130-seat auditorium was empty until Charvarius Ward sat down June 7 for a one-on-one interview.

The 49ers’ offseason program was done, and Ward confidently revealed his plan to stand out this season among the NFL’s rows of elite cornerbacks.

“I’ve got the same skillset and am just as good as those guys, but I leave a lot of plays on the field sometimes,” Ward told this news organization that June day. “This year, I definitely want to capitalize on all those opportunities.”

He has done exactly that, and it’s paid off with his first Pro Bowl honors. Friday he’ll find out if an Associated Press All-Pro nod comes his way, too.

“I just think, ‘Why not try to go Pro Bowl or be All-Pro?’” Ward added in June. “I really prefer All-Pro, because that’s the best guys, it’s the coaches and the media, the people that really know football. So my goal is to go All-Pro this year.”

His five interceptions equal his total from the previous five years combined, from playing his first four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs to joining the 49ers as their prized 2022 free agent.

Ward’s fifth interception came near the 49ers’ goal line on New Year’s Eve to thwart a Washington Commanders comeback and set up a 27-10 win. He had two interceptions in the 49ers’ previous road game at Arizona, including a pick-six, and he was the NFL leader in pass breakups (23).

He has spoken that elite-level production into existence.

“It’s kind of self-fulfilling,” Ward said at his locker after the win in Washington. “I work hard. I know everyone in the league works hard all offseason to get to the top of the game. It’s a major honor to be one of the best among the best. We’re the best in the world, and to be one of the best, I thank God, and my family.”

Ward is among seven 49ers who’ve started every game this season, and he’s done so despite some nagging injuries (foot, groin).

San Francisco 49ers’ Charvarius Ward (7) walks on the sidelines getting injured in the first half against the Seattle Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

In a reminder of how that durability shouldn’t be overlooked, the 49ers saw oft-injured cornerback Jason Verrett sustain a season-ending shoulder injury in practice last Thursday, foiling his latest comebacker after just five snaps this year.

Whereas Verrett was a veteran voice even when not playing the previous four seasons, Ward entered this one determined to become a bigger leader, by example and by voice.

“When you talk more, you have to back that (stuff) up more,” Ward said in June.

When coach Kyle Shanahan had Ward break down a team huddle last week, the message was poignant.

“He said, ‘Continue to compete against the man in the mirror.’ That’s what he’s been doing all year,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “He’s been competing against himself trying to get better each and every, not week, but day. It’s shown up and it’s paid off for him.”

Last Wednesday morning, Ward got the Pro Bowl call from Corry Rush, the 49ers’ vice president of football communications. Happiness and pride washed over Ward. As did the search for more. “Hopefully I get that All-Pro,” Ward said last Thursday.

On Wednesday, the NFL Players Association revealed its All-Pro team, and the cornerbacks were DeRon Bland (Cowboys) and Pat Surtain II (Broncos). Making it from the 49ers were running back Christian McCaffrey, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, left tackle Trent Williams, and linebacker Fred Warner.

Such a lofty distinction comes when a cornerback is so dominant that the defensive scheme skews in order to have him shadow an opponent’s top receiver, which Ward did splendidly against the Seattle Seahawks’ D.K. Metcalf.

But, along the way, from June on into January, Ward has acknowledged he has room to improve.

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One glaring area is his, well, hands-on approach. He has drawn a team-high 12 penalties (four for holding, four for illegal contact, four for pass interference). That didn’t deter him from playing what they call “sticky” coverage, and Ward had a staunch ally in defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, whose speciality is coaching defensive backs.

“Every time I walk by, he tells me I’m a bad (man). He’s been believing in me all season,” Ward said. “Even early on when I was getting a lot of flags, he kept saying, ‘Keep playing your game,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Ward improved his technique, stopped grabbing receivers as much, and officials backed off him. He’ll next be playing in his sixth postseason in six years, since breaking into the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State. He was traded from the Dallas Cowboys to the Chiefs at the end of his rookie training camp.

Last summer, while the 49ers weighed keeping an undrafted rookie cornerback in D’Shawn Jamison, Ward could relate.

“I wasn’t drafted as well. Look at me now,” Ward said during camp. “It doesn’t matter how you get here, as long as you get in the building and stay in the building.

“I walked the same path they walked and now one of highest paid corners in the league and trying to get better.”