With the 30th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft the San Francisco 49ers selected ball-hawk Jimmie Ward in the first round. Ward, a 5-10, 193 pound senior defensive back from Northern Illinois University, was a very productive collegiate player and has the potential to be even better at the next level. He has experience playing both safety and cornerback, and could see time at both spots in his rookie campaign. The 49ers desperately needed to fill the gigantic void left in the secondary after the departures of starting cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Brown, as well as strong safety Donte Whitner, and in picking Ward they have gained a very versatile player that will aid them in rebuilding the defensive backfield.
In four seasons at Northern Illinois, Ward racked up 319 total tackles, two sacks, 11 interceptions–10 of them coming in the past two seasons–and 30 passes defended. He can play up at the line and make tackles in run support, drop back and play traditional deep safety, or even match up in man coverage on the slot receiver. What he may lack in size he makes up for in superb play recognition, cover skills, and intensity. He may not have been graded as the best safety prospect in the NFL draft because he did not play at a big time program, but when all is said and done he could be a tremendous find.
A year ago San Francisco was left with a hole at free safety when pro bowler Dashon Goldson left for Tampa Bay in free agency, so they opted for a defensive back in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft when they traded up to select safety prospect Eric Reid from LSU. It turned out to be a solid decision as Reid solidified the back-end and made his first trip to the pro bowl in his rookie season. By selecting a defensive back in the first round for a second consecutive season, the 49ers may have found their starting safety tandem for the next decade.
For many months NFL draft analysts and prognosticators have been mulling over the needs of every franchise, and have voiced their opinions as to where they feel each prospect would fit best. It seems everyone and anyone who is a football fan has released an online mock draft at some point this off-season, or has at least chipped in their own two cents in the comments section. Among those who have chimed in, it seemed to be a 50/50 split as to whether San Francisco would trade up or stay put in the first round, and the same could be said about what position the 49ers would choose to address first. The football community was torn between which was more crucial–the red and gold’s sudden deficiency at cornerback or their lack of speed at receiver. Ultimately, GM Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh decided that defensive back was the more glaring need, and that Jimmie Ward had the best chance to provide immediate impact to the roster.
San Francisco will still need to address the cornerback position, as well as select a receiver somewhere in the coming rounds, but with two picks in the second round and three more in the third, they will have plenty of opportunities to do so on day two of the draft. Some may still feel a speedy receiver was more important, but after selecting Jimmie Ward in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft the 49ers have added some much-needed talent to the back-end of their defense.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky
Pro Football Talk