The San Francisco 49ers drafted strong safety Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois University this past May. However, Ward most likely won’t be playing safety this season for the 49ers. In training camp, he is battling to win the nickel cornerback position. While in college, Ward had the reputation of being a ballhawk and in the short time that training camp has been underway, he’s done nothing but live up to that reputation.
Last season, the 49ers had Donte Whitner at the strong safety position, but he left via free agency. To replace him the 49ers brought in veteran Antoine Bethea, but the position was still considered a need because Bethea isn’t typically viewed as a long term option for the 49ers. So, they drafted Ward in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. Ward will learn the position under Bethea and when he’s ready to start at safety, I believe the 49ers will move current starting free safety (and their 2013 first round draft pick) Eric Reid over to strong safety and put Ward at his more natural position of free safety.
Ward has the instincts, quickness and ball skills to be a top level free safety. The 49ers would basically be able to put Ward in center field while Reid played much closer to the line of scrimmage to help against the run and also cover tight ends and slot receivers. In the meantime, he’ll get a majority of snaps as their nickel cornerback and he’ll excel in that role. The 49ers know that isn’t where he can be best utilized though, and will look to make the transition within the next two seasons.
If anyone doubted Ward’s instincts and ball skills before training camp, he’s certainly doing his best to prove those doubters wrong. In the first day of practice during training camp, Ward intercepted quarterback Colin Kaepernick during a 7-on-7 drill. Just two days later in their first day of practice with pads on, ESPN 49ers writer Bill Williamson reported that Ward was getting his hands on everything and said he understands why Ward had the reputation he did at Northern Illinois.
If Ward continues down this road, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s playing safety by the end of this season. His instincts and ball skills are similar to those of Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals, who plays a hybrid role between cornerback and safety. Matthieu is all over the field constantly making plays on the ball and I expect the same thing from Ward. He’s a natural ballhawk and will always be looking to make plays when he sees the field in September.