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A healthy Jimmie Ward ready to cash in, but will it be with the 49ers?

Jimmie Ward would love to return to the 49ers after arguably the best season of his six-year career. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As he enters unrestricted free agency for the second time in as many years, San Francisco 49ers free safety Jimmie Ward knows one thing: The second part of his job title is going to remain the same.

"As long as I play safety, that's the main thing," Ward said. "As long as I'm at safety, I'll be good."

Ward, who has split his time at cornerback, nickel corner and free safety during his career, has repeatedly made it clear that he won't consider offers from teams that want him to change positions again. He has found a home at free safety.

The next question is where, exactly, his next actual NFL home will be.

For the Niners, who have plenty of in-house business to take care of, keeping Ward on deal similar to the four-year, $24 million contract Kenny Vaccaro signed with Tennessee or the three-year, $22.5 million pact Tashaun Gipson signed with Houston last offseason would seem to be reasonable, though Ward might be able to command more.

Where he fits in the Niners' puzzle will be greatly affected by what happens with others, such as pending free agents Arik Armstead and Emmanuel Sanders, as well as foundational players due lucrative extensions such as tight end George Kittle and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

Considering all that Ward and the Niners have been through together the past six seasons, it's hard to imagine him playing for anyone else. San Francisco drafted him with the No. 30 overall pick in 2014 and has stuck with him through the myriad injuries that have plagued his career.

That commitment hasn't gone unnoticed by Ward, who acknowledges that it will be a factor in his decision as he heads toward free agency.

"I have no clue what's next," Ward said. "The offseason is like a wild card. I would love to stay with the 49ers, but you never know. They've got a lot of great guys on this football team. They've got to lock some guys in too, so I don't know.

"They know they've got the upper hand in this situation. I've been here for six years. It just depends on what happens. Business is business."

It was only a year ago that the thought of Ward returning to the 49ers seemed like a long shot. He completed his third straight abbreviated year in which he ended the season on injured reserve and the Niners had been connected to possible free agents such as Earl Thomas as replacements.

But Ward had become a favorite of coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh in their two years together. Both were steadfast in their belief that better injury luck would reveal that Ward was an ideal fit to play the single-high safety in their Cover 3 heavy defense.

Because of the injury issues -- he sustained broken bones that have cost him games in five of his six NFL seasons -- Ward didn't have much of a market last year. The Niners re-signed him to a one-year, $4.5 million contract in hopes he could finally get healthy and become the player they believed he could be.

That got off to a tenuous start, as Ward suffered a broken collarbone during the offseason program that cost him three games at the start of the past season. But once he returned to the lineup, he never left.

Ward rewarded the Niners' faith by starting the final 13 games of the regular season, posting 60 tackles, eight pass breakups and a sack while covering the deep post well enough to help San Francisco's defense finish tied for first in the NFL in fewest passing plays of 20-plus yards allowed (34). He also started all three postseason games, finishing with 17 tackles and a fumble recovery.

All of that will undoubtedly create a more robust market for Ward should he test free agency. Although the safety market had been tepid in recent years, that took a turn last season, when Thomas, Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, Lamarcus Joyner and Adrian Amos all reeled in deals averaging $9 million per season or more.

It seems unlikely Ward will approach that kind of money given his injury history and a lack of splash plays, but there are also only three or four more-accomplished safeties poised to become available at a position that plenty of teams need.

"I want every single person on our team back because I think we have a team that can win a Super Bowl," Shanahan said. "I think we showed that last year. ... When have you ever been able to bring the exact same team back anywhere you've been on? So that is a lot harder, and especially our cap situation, but it is cool to know that that's what we want. And that's what we're trying to do.

"There's so many connected parts in that."

Should bidding to sign Ward go much higher than the range of $6 million to $8 million per year, the Niners might have to let him leave and turn to Tarvarius Moore, the third-year player who started in Ward's stead early in the season.

Both sides prefer that doesn't happen, as Ward believes his best football is ahead of him now that he has almost a full, healthy season under his belt.

"It was cool," Ward said. "I still don't feel like it was a great season for me. I feel like I showed people that I can just be healthy. That was the main thing for me. I'm going to make plays, but that big season that I really want is going to happen. I'm only going to be better."