The San Francisco 49ers are viewed by most to be one of the two or three best teams in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use a little help. As the end of the first round neared, many observers thought the 49ers would be targeting a player like Marqise Lee or Bradley Roby. However, they chose to go a different direction, selecting defensive back Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois.
I call Ward a defensive back because he’s not quite a safety and not quite a corner, and the truth is that he will probably play both for the Niners. Ward may not neatly fit into a position, but don’t take that as a criticism or a problem. He is a quality player who instantly makes the 49ers’ secondary better. This is a team that lost Tarrell Brown and Carlos Rogers in the offseason, and Ward is a good start towards replacing that production.
Ward will probably start as a slot corner for the Niners, and they will likely build some three safety looks involving him, Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. At 5’10″, 193 lbs, Ward is build more like a slot corner than a traditional safety, and he has the quickness and cover skills to be effective in that role. Ward is solid in man to man coverage, and he had six interceptions last season. He is not afraid to get physical either, and his ability to provide run support is probably a big reason the 49ers felt comfortable with this pick.
However, the fact remains that Ward is not a true cornerback, which is still a need for the 49ers. Ward will also have to make the big adjustment from the MAC to the NFL, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him struggle at first. Unfortunately, the Niners are Super Bowl contenders in the best division in football, and they can’t afford to wait out an adjustment period. Finally, Ward was a player that many viewed as mid second round pick, so this is a bit of a reach.
That being said, there is no doubt the 49ers got a good football player with this pick, and they will find a way to maximize his talents. However, the concerns about his fit are valid, and it is worth wondering if Lee or Roby would have been a better choice here. Ward is a versatile player, and everything hinges on how well he adjusts to a new position and greatly increased level of competition.