Well, that was a surprise. And a head-scratcher.
With great needs at cornerback and wide receiver, the 49ers used the 30th pick in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night to select safety Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois.
With a pair of starting safeties already on the roster in second-year man Eric Reid and veteran Antoine Bethea, signed in free agency from the Colts, 49ers GM Trent Baalke selected Ward, who had the second-most interceptions in major college football last season, with seven. Ward, 5-feet-10 and 193 pounds, is reported to have good coverage skills, which could mean that the 49ers will: a) convert him to cornerback; b) or use him in Big Nickel packages (three-safety sets), which Matt Wiliamson of ESPN.com noted is a growing trend in the league.
NFL analyst Adam Caplan tweeted that Ward “is arguably the best cover safety for this year’s draft.” Another analyst, Josh Norris, tweeted: “Ward has some Kenny Vaccaro-type traits. That’ll help any defense. Was ranked as my No. 17 overall prospect.” Vaccaro was the Saints' top rookie safety in 2013.
The Niners went for Ward even though players such as touted wide receiver Marqise Lee and cornerback Bradley Roby were still available.
Ward, who suffered a stress fracture in a foot, did not participate in the NFL Combine, but ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. That would have been the second-fastest time for a safety at the Combine. In 55 games at Northern Illinois he had 11 interceptions. Ward was a third-team All-America pick.
Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an analyst for ESPN, thought Baalke made a great selection, tweeting: “Again, GM Trent Baalke nails first round pick for #49ers. Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid together in back end will create fits for opposing off.”
But where does that leave Bethea? And who will play cornerback? And where is that fast wide receiver who can stretch the field against tough defenses, such as the one to the north in Seattle?
Perhaps Day 2 will make the situation a bit more clear.
The 49ers now go into Day 2 of the draft, conceivably able to use the 56th and 61st selections in Round 2 on a wide receiver or cornerback.