With all the pre-draft pundit chatter suggesting the 49ers would move up to nab a wide receiver, one had to expect that this would be the last thing Trent Baalke and company would do. The 49ers front office operates under a thick veil of secrecy; predicting their draft selections is like forecasting the winning lottery numbers.
Thus it should come as no surprise that the 49ers stood pat at pick 30 and selected safety Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois University. The first question is why San Francisco would draft a safety when they have Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea already set as the starters. The second question is why would they pass on a wide receiver. There are logical answers to both of those questions. For one, Antoine Bethea is not spring chicken; his days of peak performance will be drawing to a close soon. Furthermore, the 49ers lost cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown in addition to strong safety Donte Whitner this offseason. The overall objective with the pick was to replenish the secondary with talent and ensure they'd have solid personnel for the nickel packages they run so frequently in Vic Fangio's scheme. In Ward, they not only round out their secondary nickel package, they also recoup some of the fierce hitting and in-the-box play that Donte Whitner packed up and brought to Cleveland.
As far as a wide receiver selection goes, this draft is very deep at wideout and, to be honest, none of the wide receivers left on the board at pick 30 warranted a selection that high in terms of value. The Niners definitely have their sights set on wide receiver next, so anticipate them to wheel and deal in order to get the guy they want. My prediction is they make a play for Jordan Matthews, wide receiver out of Vanderbilt and nephew of Jerry Rice (you remember Rice, right?). Matthews is a phenomenal combination of size and speed and while the 49ers have plenty of size, they lack the latter; a player who possesses both has to have Baalke chomping at the bit, but I digress...
Let's get back to evaluating the Jimmie Ward selection. In researching Ward and taking a look at the film, I came away with the following:
- A nose for the ball: This guy pops off the screen. Look no further than his 2013 Orange Bowl performance against Florida State for context. He seems to be in on every single play, whether in the air or on the ground
- Tackling: The 49ers place an extremely high premium on tackling ability, especially in the secondary. In keeping with that tradition, Jimmie Ward is a Grade-A hitter. He not only can lower the boom ala the recently departed Donte Whitner but he also appears very accomplished at coming in around the waist and lower to effectively wrap up ball carriers and lasso them to the ground. This was an area that Whitner often struggled in, opting to employ a shoulder charge which sometimes led to either a flag or the opponent bouncing off of him and gaining more yardage down the field. Ward appears much more sound in that category which should not only help him to avoid penalty flags but should also help mitigate the disadvantage of having a smaller frame when facing off against the bigger receivers of the NFC West
- Ball skills: To use a tired platitude in lacking a better term, the kid is a center fielder. He sits back there with great range and can close in on the ball and its target quickly. The 49ers have had struggles in allowing the big down-field plays the past few seasons; Ward should remedy this flaw
- Ability to play nickel: This is the dimension everyone is talking about and for good reason. Say what you will about Carlos Rogers declining in older age, but the man knew how to play the slot. In nickel packages, Ward could be the heir to that throne. He's got the speed to hang with the small, fast WRs and the physicality and tackling form to go up against slot guys of the opposite nature such as Anquan Boldin, for example. As mentioned earlier, the Niners play plenty of nickel coverage in Fangio's scheme, so we'll see a lot from Ward right out the gate
- Speed: Speaking of speed, the 49ers needed more of it in the backfield. They largely keep up with faster wideouts as a result of the pass rush and pressing receivers at the line, but you need a guy who can keep pace when it comes down to a foot race. Brock helps in this area and Ward, while maybe not lightning-quick, has some very solid speed to cover wide receivers like Tavon Austin, Victor Cruz, etc. A foot injury kept Ward from performing at the combine but his reported 40-yard dash time from pro day was 4.45, per Matt Barrows. That time would have placed him as second fastest among the safety group
The more you research Ward and watch the film, the more you like him and realize why the 49ers selected him. He should be a great fit and immediate contributor for a team that prides itself on defensive prowess. As Day 2 approaches, keep an eye out for that wide receiver selection, and don't be surprised if defensive line and outside linebacker work their way into the mix.
On a more light-hearted note, it's common practice for folks on this site to create nicknames for players obsessively. I've never been one to engage in this sort of thing but for the heck of it, I figured I'd open it up for discussion here. Any prospective nicknames for the 49ers newest first-round selection? My initial vote is for "The Warden" as I anticipate Jimmie Ward to be the enforcer of the secondary.
Leave your thoughts, nickname suggestions, and feedback in the comments section below.