With the 30th overall pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers selected Jimmie Ward, former safety for the Northern Illinois Huskies.
Ward is one of the premier defensive backs in the 2014 draft and was also a stand-out on special teams for the Huskies. The biggest perceived weakness about him relates to his size, as his height and weight are both regarded as small for an NFL safety, but his coverage skills should overcome any issues that his size presents. His numbers in four years in DeKalb, Illinois show just how dangerous he can be.
As a true freshman at NIU in 2010, Ward made an immediate impact. He played quite a bit on special teams and blocked a school-record three punts. That record isn't just for one season -- it's for an entire career. The Huskies ultimately named him their Special Teams Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. He also saw time as a backup at free safety and earned 21 tackles, a forced fumble, and a pass break-up.
Ward became a starter in 2011, taking the field to open 12 of NIU's 14 games in his sophomore season. He blossomed as a defender and registered 100 tackles, including a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. He also had a forced fumble, four passes defensed and an interception. That pick came in the second half of the MAC Championship game against Ohio. He earned his fourth career punt block against Army and, at the end of the season, was named second team All-MAC.
During his junor season, Ward earned first-team All-MAC honors and started 13 games on a team that crashed the BCS and played Florida State in the Orange Bowl. He had a career-best 11 passes defensed and 104 tackles, including 65 solos. Fourteen of those were in that game against the Seminoles, and that led the team. He also picked off three passes.
His senior campaign brought All-American honors from USA Today and SI.com, and Ward was honored as first team All-MAC for the second straight season. He picked off seven passes and returned those for a combined 102 yards. He finished his career at NIU with 11 interceptions, tied for ninth on NIU's all-time list, and 37 passes defensed, which ranks fourth. He also had 320 career tackles and four forced fumbles to go with his four punt blocks and two career touchdown returns (one punt, one interception).
More On Jimmie Ward
Scouting Jimmie Ward
Jimmie Ward was the unsung hero of the Northern Illinois Huskies rise to national prominence, but come May, he could be the second MAC player taken in the first round.
More On Jimmie Ward
VITALS / PRO DAY RESULTS:
WEIGHT: 193 lbs.
ARM LENGTH: 31"
40-YARD DASH: 4.45 seconds
VERTICAL JUMP: 38"
BROAD JUMP: 120"
BENCH PRESS: 9 reps
Ward is ranked third among all safeties by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper and fourth by NFL.com's Mike Mayock. He might have ultimately ended up higher on these lists, especially after a stellar performance at the Senior Bowl. However, he suffered an injured foot that prevented him from participating in the NFL Combine and limited him at NIU's Pro Day.
There are a lot of things to like here, once you get past any potential size concerns. Ward is active and aggressive, especially against the run. He has good closing speed, especially in small areas, and his hands are very quick. His experience is also valuable, and if you look at his numbers, they have steadily increased along with his experience.
Ward does a very good job playing downhill with action in front of him, but he can also play over the top and lock down any area of the field. His quickness and body control help him in both of these areas, and he adjusts well on the fly.
Scouts do see some weaknesses. His lack of size translates to a poor number in the bench press. His nine reps were second fewest among defensive backs. Another issue related to size and strength is a tendency to get tangled up in blocks. He can also be a little slow at times when diagnosing plays. However, if he's utilized properly, any of these perceived weaknesses can be overcome.
Ward should be able to play from the first day and will likely make an immediate impact. His versatility and coverage skills will make him an instant asset for the 49ers defense.