When the 49ers hold their three-day rookie minicamp beginning Friday, it will be a chance for head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff to get their first look at how Jimmie Ward fits into the defensive scheme.
Ward, the 49ers’ first-round draft pick, was a safety at Northern Illinois, but will likely get an opportunity to win a job as the team’s No. 1 nickel cornerback. The 49ers believe Ward, who’s 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, has the coverage skills and intelligence to match up against NFL receivers as a rookie.
Though he’s not a big defender, Ward is a hard hitter and sure tackler. He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, yet excelled in college.
“Don’t mistake lack of size for lack of toughness, because it’s not the case,” 49ers GM Trent Baalke told Bay Area reporters after Ward was taken with the 30th overall choice in Round 1. “He’s a highly competitive young man that’s beat the odds his whole career.”
Jay Sawvel, an assistant coach at Northern Illinois, raves about Ward and his ability to make impact hits in the secondary.
“I’ve been coaching in the secondary for 20 years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player who better understands the timing – whatever that mechanism is – that allows you to hit somebody with everything you’ve got,” he told Daniel Brown of the Bay Area News Group.
During the three-day minicamp, Ward will get his chance to be introduced to his new life as an NFL cornerback, and no doubt will be matched up at times against Bruce Ellington, the speedy fourth-round draft choice out of South Carolina.
One thing in Ward’s favor this spring and summer – as he adjusts to pro football through this weekend’s camp, OTAs, full minicamp and then training camp in July – is his passion for film study.
At Northern Illinois, Ward spent hours in the film room, studying opponents and looking for keys to how offenses work so he could react quickly in games.
“Whatever you do in practice is going to reflect in the game,” Ward told a writer with the 49ers website. “I’m going to watch the wide receivers, I’m watching running backs, I’m watching tackles, I’m watching everybody. There’s a lot of stuff I’m looking at.”
By spending extra time up front studying, he believes he can play faster on game days.
“Film plays a big part in it because if you don’t have to think on the field, that means you’re playing fast,” he said. “If you know where you need to be at, and you don’t think, that’s what you’ve got to do. Me, I think that’s my advantage, I don’t like to think on the field. I just like to fly, fly, fly.”
Recently, Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle outlined the best case/worst case scenarios for the 12 49ers draft picks. He noted that Ward, if he catches on quickly, could be good enough to win the starting corner job opposite Tramaine Brock. Or, if he struggles, he might be relegated to the sidelines and special teams his first year and not make a big contribution until 2015.
But the most likely scenario, Lynch wrote, would be for Ward to fill the nickel corner job and shore up the San Francisco secondary immediately. “Ward’s toughness and tackling ability make him well-suited for the position,” Lynch wrote. “Ward eventually does all things nickel, including nickel safety and nickel linebacker. He becomes the defense’s wild card.”
Beginning this weekend, the 49ers will get an idea if Ward can indeed fit into that scenario.