This time, the injury might also signal the end of the former first-round pick’s tenure with the 49ers.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday’s 27-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that he was “pretty sure” the injury will sideline Ward for the team’s final five games of the season.
That means Ward now heads off into an uncertain future as his rookie contract is set to expire at season’s end on the heels of an injury-marred first five seasons.
“I wanted to finish the season off,” Ward said. “Safety is easy for me. It’s natural. Corner, I just started playing corner when I got in the league so each play, each game, I just started getting better, just like I was getting better at safety. So, I’ll be all right. I’ll bounce back and I’ll ball.”
With 12:11 left in the first quarter, Ward tackled Tampa Bay running back Peyton Barber after an 11-yard gain and didn’t immediately appear to be in pain. Ward said he felt normal after the tackle but when he stood up he could hear “clicks” in his lower left forearm. Ward tried to stay on the field for another play but the next play was stopped for a penalty.
“I felt like that was God telling me just ‘Nah, take it in,'” Ward said. “So that’s when I took a knee and got an X-ray. I told them it was messed up before I even got the X-ray. Before I even got the X-ray I knew what time it was.”
Ward’s latest injury, which is to the same arm that was injured last year — though in a different spot, comes weeks after Adrian Colbert, the team’s initial starting free safety, was placed on injured reserve because of a high ankle sprain.
Ward started the past four games, including Sunday’s, in Colbert’s place and had earned praise from defensive coordinator Robert Saleh for making a smooth transition back to that position after spending the beginning of the year at cornerback.
Bouncing between corner and safety has become a hallmark of Ward’s career and has made it difficult for him to settle in. Despite that constant movement, the Niners kept Ward this year on his fifth-year option, paying him $8.526 million to serve as a sort of utility man in the secondary.
The Niners drafted Ward with the No. 30 overall pick in 2014, but his physical playing style has contributed to an inability to stay on the field. Ward has played more than 11 games just once in his five seasons, playing all 16 games in 2015.
“That’s just how I’ve played… I just play physical,” Ward said. “I don’t know no other way but to play. Corner, physical, nickel, physical, safety, physical. It’s just a tough break and when it happens, it happens. I’ve been here before. I’m just going to grind and get back.”