SANTA CLARA — The 49ers had clear needs at cornerback and wide receiver coming into the draft. The 49ers chose to address strong safety in Round 1.
With the 30th pick, the 49ers drafted Jimmie Ward, a 5-foot-11, 193-pound strong safety from Northern Illinois University. But he most likely will not play strong safety for the 49ers next season. The 49ers signed 29-year-old strong safety Antoine Bethea to a four-year, $21 million contract on the first day of free agency.
Ward still could play a crucial role as a rookie on the 49ers’ defense.
The 49ers lost their former nickel cornerback, Carlos Rogers, during free agency. He signed with the Oakland Raiders. Ward said he played nickel back about 40 percent of the time at Northern Illinois.
“That is something that we felt he would be really good at, would excel at,” Jim Harbaugh said in the 49ers’ defensive meeting room after Round 1 of the draft. “(Ward) has an instinct for reacting to plays before anybody else sees it. Just a step ahead of the rest of the defense. Covers a lot of ground. Covers up a lot of holes. Has ball skills.”
“Ball skills” means Ward can locate the ball when it’s in the air, and he can catch it once he’s located it. He intercepted seven passes last season. The 49ers’ former strong safety — Donte Whitner — and former nickel back — Rogers — were not known for their “ball skills.” Whitner was a hitter who couldn’t cover. Rogers was a cover man who couldn’t hit or catch.
“We’re very confident in Ward’s cover ability,” said Trent Baalke, “yet very impressed by the way he plays the game physically. He’s a very physical football player. Don’t mistake his size for a lack of toughness. That’s not the case.He’s energetic, he’s got a short memory and he’s a highly competitive man.”
Nickel backs tend to be small and quick, because they cover slot receivers who are small and quick. So nickel backs tend to be poor tacklers. Rogers was a poor tackler. Not Ward. He’s a tackling machine. He had 319 tackles in his four-year college career.
“Those guys need to be able to tackle,” said Baalke, referring to nickel backs. “They need to be able to blitz. They need to be able to hold up in the box. (Ward) has been able to hold up physically. He plays a physical style of football. He also has the rare traits to be able to cover. There is just a lot of versatility to his game. The fact that he can play it physically and play it mentally is extremely important.”
Draft gurus considered Jason Verrett from TCU to be the best nickel back in the draft. The San Diego Chargers took him with the 25th pick. But Verrett is smaller than Ward and had trouble holding up physically in college. That’s a deal-breaker for the Niners. They want a strong, dependable nickel back, like Ward.
“The last two years, our Nickel has been on the field over 60 percent of the time,” Baalke said. “That’s a starter in our opinion. That’s a guy that’s going to get a lot of playing time. He’s going to get an opportunity to compete for that spot.”
Ward suffered a fractured foot bone last season. He can’t compete for any position until doctors clear his surgically repaired foot. “They put a screw in the metatarsal,” Ward said on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “They took some bone marrow out of my hip and inserted into the crack to help speed up the process.”
Ward says he expects doctors to clear him in the next two or three weeks. Baalke said he expects Ward to be cleared by the start of training camp in late July. As long as he’s cleared before the season starts, he will fill a big need for the 49ers.