Scouting Report of New 49ers Safety Jimmy Ward
With the 30th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft the 49ers selected Jimmy Ward, a defensive back out of Northern Illinois. A versatile player that will start out as a slot corner, Ward has the athleticism, passion and physicality the 49ers were looking to add to a secondary that lost two starting cornerbacks and Donte Whinter.
Before the 2014 NFL Draft the 49ers’ needs were clear, wide receiver and corner back. With so many picks– 11 at the start– and a loaded roster many predicted the 49ers to trade up to grab one of the top prospects. Given GM Trent Baalke’s trade happy approach it was an understandable prediction but in the end the 49ers decided stand pat at the 30th pick because their intended target dropped right into their laps.
That target turned out to be Jimmy Ward, a defensive back out of Norther Illinois. A true competitor Ward lined up all over the secondary for the Huskies and demonstrated his versatile skill set as he led the team in tackles each of the past 3 seasons. His blend of speed, power and feel for the game allow Ward to be a moveable piece in a defense that can contribute all over the field.
For the 49ers Ward will start his career as a slot corner with the hope of developing into the free safety of the future. For a team with a desperate need for another corner and insurance for Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea Ward fills both the short and long term needs. Add in his physical style of play and natural football IQ and Ward is a perfect fit for a 49ers team that has been so close to winning the Super Bowl over the past 3 seasons.
Athleticism: Good blend of speed and quickness, easy acceleration, ran a 4.47 40 at his pro day with a hurt foot, has fluid hips and quick feet, wiry strong and has the right combination of speed, size and quickness to play every position in the secondary.
Man Coverage: Thrives in man coverage, lots of experience in man coverage particularly in the slot, breaks on the ball well, contests the catch point with purpose, undercuts routes well and has good ball skills.
Awareness: Great football IQ, always seems to be in the right place/around the football, doesn’t overrun plays, has the ability to play center field, great at coming forward in run support, takes good angles to the football, doesn’t get fooled by trick plays and reacts extremely quickly.
Physical: Plays bigger than he is, loves contact, attacks the ball carrier, dislodges the football with big hits, consistent tackler and seems to have a mean streak to him.
Production: Led Northern Illinois in tackles each of last three seasons, had 7 interceptions and 10 pass deflections, was a Jim Thorpe Finalist in 2013, thrived at multiple positions and was a leader of a Norther Illinois team that went 24-4 over last two seasons.
Versatile: Can play and has experience at every position in the secondary, played on special teams, will likely start out as a slot corner in the NFL and will give the 49ers flexibility going forward.
Size: Under 6 foot and 200 pounds currently, smaller frame, short arms, not much room to add on weight/muscle, limits his ability to jam receivers, questions about whether he can play 16 games near the line of scrimmage and won’t be able to defender the taller receivers in the NFL.
Overall: It is easy to see why Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers drafted Jimmy Ward in the 1st round. His impressive awareness and football IQ allow him to play variety of positions and while his athleticism and demeanor ensure he will make an impact regardless of where he lines up. The one worry is his size/durability and his ability to play near the line of scrimmage at 200ish pounds.
Fit with the 49ers: According to Trent Baalke the 49ers played their nickel defense about 60% of the time last season. Playing with five defensive backs that often will allow Ward to see playing time early and often next season as the 3rd safety/slot corner. That big nickel package– three safeties instead of three corners– that Ward will likely be a part of is starting to gain popularity in the NFL as a response to offenses spreading teams out to run at smaller nickel defenses.
Down the line the 49ers envision Ward competing with Bethea for the free safety position which would allow Eric Reid to slide over as the strong safety. A safety pair of Ward and Reid would be dynamic and interchangeable something defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has stated he likes.
In the end this is a quintessential 49er pick as it perfectly balances the short term need– slot corner– with long term potential.
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