The San Francisco 49ers selected former Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward with the 30th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. It's a fantastic landing spot for Ward, who gets to join one of the league's best defenses, and learn from a secondary coaching staff that is among the best. But the pick naturally seems curious at first glance.
The 49ers already have a pair of starting safeties in free agent acquisition Antoine Bethea (who is replacing Donte Whitner) and last year's first-round pick Eric Reid. Reid played well in his rookie season, is only 22, and is signed at least through the end of the 2016 season with a team option for 2017. Bethea, a two-time Pro Bowler, signed a four year $28 million dollar deal this offseason.
With two Pro Bowl caliber players under contract for the next few years, NIU fans may be wondering how the hell Ward will see the field in San Francisco. Wonder no more. Jim Harbaugh cleared up Ward's role immediately after the draft in an interview with 49ers.com.
"We believe that he (Ward) will compete as a nickel for us as well, which is a very important position for our football team," Harbaugh said. "I feel really good about Jimmie Ward coming in and competing in our secondary."
According to Harbaugh, the team wasn't sure if he'd be there when they picked at No. 30. When the Arizona Cardinals passed on Ward at No. 27 by taking Washington State strong safety Deone Bucannon, Ward fell into their lap.
Harbaugh raved about Ward's skill set, talking up his ability to create big hits, wrap up his tackles and get after the ball. It was those intangibles and instincts that made Ward such an exciting pick for the 49ers staff.
"He covers a lot of ground, and makes a lot of plays," Harbaugh said. "He covers up for other people's mistakes because he's got a knack of seeing things quicker than everybody else on the football field, and reacting to them quicker."
The former Huskie was arguably the best coverage safety in this draft, with dynamic ball skills to back up that claim; he had seven interceptions and 10 passes defended as a senior. Part of what makes Ward such a smart pick for San Francisco here is his versatility. In DeKalb Ward did a bit of everything. He got his start in special teams and as the Huskies nickel, before eventually becoming the team's starting strong safety. All told he started for three years in NIU's backfield, with substantial time as the team's nickelback. He's played just about every position in the secondary you could ask for, and did it successfully. Now in the pros he'll be tasked with using that versatility to aid the 49ers' defense.
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In the pass heavy NFL, Harbaugh estimates the nickelback—whose primary job is to cover the slot, and occasionally help in the run game—is on the field for his defense 60 percent of the time, according to San Francisco Chronicle 49ers blogger Kevin Lynch. That means the team needs a versatile back who can not only hang with a slot (Ward runs a mid to high 4.4 40), but can get up in the box and disrupt the running game.
"Yeah, I take pride because I'm versatile, so I take pride in covering, show how versatile I am," Ward told the media early Friday morning when asked about his role in the 49ers defense. "I can tackle, I can cover, I can do a lot of things. So, I would love to compete for that nickel spot."
Ward isn't concerned about the prospects of sitting behind the 49ers current safeties on the depth chart either, stating his willingness to plug in wherever the team needs him, and the gift of getting to observe and learn from two Pro Bowl caliber safeties.
"Basically, I'm going to try and fit in wherever I can fit in ... I'm a competitor. So, I want to play. But, there's a lot I can learn from them guys. Those guys have been there for a couple years. I know I'm going to come in and I know they're going to teach me a lot."
As for concerns about the foot fracture that kept him out of the NFL Combine in February, Ward says he's healing just fine and doesn't expect it to keep him out of action.
"I was shooting around OTAs, but it's probably going to be a little bit later than that. I want to say probably two weeks, three weeks.