For the second straight season, the 49ers took a player listed as a free safety with their first-round choice. Jimmy Ward's immediate role, however, likely will come at the increasingly critical slot cornerback position.
The Northern Illinois safety is 5-11, 193 pounds, which is undersized for an NFL safety and quite a bit smaller than the team's top choice last year, Eric Reid. The 49ers' biggest free-agent addition this offseason, Antoine Bethea, also plays safety, and he and Reid are slated to start there this season.
Ward is expected to enter games when opponents line up three or more wide receivers, a role that veteran Carlos Rogers, now a member of the Raiders, had for the past three seasons. Ward said it was a position he played more than 50 percent of the time at Northern Illinois, which faced plenty of spread offenses in the Mid-American Conference, and is a role that has become more and more vital in the pass-heavy NFL. The 49ers coaches have preferred bigger-body cornerbacks at the spot in previous seasons because they play close to the trenches and are expected to make a lot of tackles.
"The nickel's been on the field 60 percent of the time for us," said 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. "So that's a starter in our opinion."
As a senior last year, Ward finished with a team-high 95 tackles, seven interceptions and 17 pass deflections. He was a first-team All-MAC selection and a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation's top defensive back.
The 49ers said they were impressed by Ward's combination of intelligence, toughness and instincts. He also ran a his 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds in March, one of the best times for any safety in this year's draft. "He's a step ahead of the rest of the defense," said Jim Harbaugh of Ward's game film. "He covers a lot of ground and covers up a lot of holes."
Baalke noted that Ward played just about everywhere in Northern Illinois' secondary - at both free and strong safety, closer to the line of scrimmage as the nickel cornerback and as an outside cornerback as well. One of the things that stood out, Baalke said, is that there was no bad film for Ward. He performed well in every game he watched. "He's a very physical football player," Baalke said. "Don't mistake the size for a lack of toughness."
Asked to describe his style of play, Ward said, "I would say 'a smart tackler.' I don't just go for the big hits all of the time."
The 49ers met with Ward at the scouting combine and he also was one of the 30 players who visited Santa Clara last month. Along the way, Ward picked up a 49ers cap. Despite the fact that he visited 10 other teams - and presumably picked up more gear - he said he's been wearing the 49ers hat for the last few weeks. It's not because he had an inkling he'd be picked by San Francisco but because the red matches his red and black Northern Illinois attire.
"Maybe that was a sign," he said with a laugh during a conference call.
Ward will arrive in Santa Clara tomorrow and will be able to attend meetings when offseason practices begin later this month. However, he had foot surgery on March 11, and the 49ers don't expect him on the field until the start of training camp in late July. At that point, he will compete against veterans Eric Wright and Perrish Cox for the nickel role.
In the run-up to the draft, there was a buzz that the 49ers, like last year, would trade up in the first round and that LSU receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. was their likely target. Baalke acknowledged that the team liked Beckham, whom the Giants selected at pick No. 12, but said "the price of doing business ... near the Top 10 became too steep."
He said the number of quality receivers in this year's draft means they can address that concern later. The 49ers have two picks in the second round and three in the third today. Some of the receivers available include Indiana's Cody Latimer, Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, Fresno State's Davante Adams and Clemson's Martavis Bryant, who visited the 49ers last month.
By not trading up, the 49ers also held on to their considerable bounty of draft picks, and they could pool some of them to target the receiver or outside cornerback, another area of need for them, they desire.
Along with Rogers, the team's other starting cornerback for the last three seasons, Tarell Brown, is now in Oakland. Their replacements at the moment are Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, who is coming off an ACL injury and who on Thursday was hit with a civil suit in connection to his hit-and-run arrest in March. Wright, Cox and free-agent addition Chris Cook also will compete for spots in the lineup.
-- Matt Barrows