Everyone who watched a Northern Illinois Huskies game last season knew that Jimmie Ward was a great player. Huskie fans have known that for much longer. In his freshmen year, Ward blocked three punts, returned one for a touchdown, had 21 tackles and forced a fumble. Things only got better from there. As a senior, he was second in the NCAA in interceptions (7) and led NIU in tackles (95), passes defended (17) and pass breakups (10). He was also named a first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated and USA Today, as well as a Jim Thorpe Award semi-finalist.
NFL scouts took notice. After originally being pegged as a second or third round pick, his draft stock soared after a great showing at the Senior Bowl and another at his pro day. Finally, last Thursday, he was picked 30th overall by the San Francisco 49ers. The selection made him just the second player from NIU to go in the first round (Larry English, 2009).
David Fucillo from Niners Nation, our sister blog dedicated to the San Francisco 49ers, was kind enough to sit down for a Q&A about their new pick and how he might be utilized this fall.
HustleBelt: At first, it seemed like there was a lot of head scratching from 49ers fans when Ward was selected in the first round. What was your initial reaction to the pick? And now that you have had some time to see what he did at NIU, has your opinion changed at all?
Niners Nation: When I heard the name and position, I was a little confused. The 49ers signed a safety in free agency to play alongside Eric Reid, so I did not know what to make of it. However, I quickly learned Ward had done a lot of work covering slot receivers and generally was a versatile defensive back. Once I figured that out, I quickly warmed up to the pick. The 49ers played in their nickel defenset almos 60 percent of the time last season. The NFL is becoming more and more of a passing league, so a strong nickel back is key.
Ward seems like the type who can jump right into that role. Having since watched some game tape, I'm really excited. It sounds like the plan is to work him in at nickel back right away but also get him some time practicing at the safety position. My guess is we see him transition to safety in year two or three. But in the meantime, he'll compete this fall for nickel work. I suspect he comes in to training camp a little further down the depth chart, but by Week 1 of the regular season, I would probably be a little surprised if he is not the starting nickel back.
HB: Everyone seems to have a different opinion on Ward, I've seen him graded as a B- pick all the way to an A. But what's your grade of him?
NN: For purposes of how this pick could impact the team, I'd have to give it an A. The 49ers released Carlos Rogers, leaving a hole at nickel back. Given how dynamic passing offenses are becoming these days, it was a position they absolutely had to replace. Eric Wright and Perrish Cox will compete at that spot, but getting a guy like Ward opens the door for some stability. The 49ers addressed a need, and based on what the tape shows, Ward can do everything they need in that role. No rookie is a 100% sure thing, but based on what I've seen so far, I can't help but be happy with what he brings to the table. I'm not sure how that can be anything but an A. My guess is the lower grades are from people thinking the team should have moved up in the draft for a big name cornerback or wide receiver. It's either less about the actual pick made, or more about people not knowing what Ward can do.
HB: With the Niners having some depth at the safety/DB position, where do you think Ward will fit in?
NN: Ward will compete primarily with Wright and Cox [the other nickle backs] out of the gate. The 49ers will often open training camp with veterans in the starting spot, and the rookies have to climb ahead of them. That's reasonable given a rookie's lack of NFL experience. I suspect Ward is currently the No. 3 nickel back, but will quickly move into the top spot. He'll get time in the 49ers nickel and dime in training camp, depending on how he progresses, but if he is as good as what I've seen so far on tape, I just can't imagine it taking long to move into the starting lineup
HB: What does Ward need to do before going into this season, if anything?
NN: Ward brings so much to the table. He has very few weaknesses, but, like any rookie, the biggest area to improve will be in understanding the NFL game. That means awareness of how opposing offenses operate, but also, just adjusting to the fact that everybody is fast. The worst receivers in the NFL are still better than most college receivers. It's a matter of getting accustomed to the NFL game. I don't doubt that he can, but it will be a question of how quickly he recognizes the differences.