Niners' Jimmie Ward Will Make Professional Debut Thursday

Rookie defensive back, praised for work in training camp, should get plenty of work in exhibition opener vs. Ravens

There will be plenty for fans to watch Thursday night in the 49ers’ exhibition opener vs. the Baltimore Ravens.

It’ll be interesting to see how backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert plays, and what his future may hold. And important players for 2014 -- rookie running back Carlos Hyde, nose tackle Quinton Dial, wide receiver Stevie Johnson and cornerback Chris Culliver (back after missing all of 2013) – should get significant playing time against the Ravens.

But the game also marks the pro debut of No. 1 pick Jimmie Ward, who’s received solid reviews in training camp.

For the first time, Ward will be matched up against NFL players as he makes the transition from Northern Illinois safety to professional cornerback. San Francisco’s coaching staff hopes Ward has the talent to cover slot receivers in the team’s nickel pass coverage scheme in 2014.

Ward, who’ll wear No. 25, was a surprising first-round pick by the Niners.

But so far, Ward has exceeded expectations. He’s played well, made athletic plays in coverage and proved to be smart and a quick study.

Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, wrote this week that Ward is expected to see action at both nickel corner and free safety against the Ravens Thursday.

“Ward has been everything the 49ers hoped when they took him with the 30th overall pick in May,” wrote Barrows. “He’s quick and always around the ball. And one of his best attributes – his willingness to hit ballcarriers – should be on display.”

Since his first day in training camp last month, Ward has been impressive, making interceptions and being at the right place at the right time.

Veteran safety Antoine Bethea says Ward has a special quality as a defensive back.

“Like a lot of guys said on the sideline, he’s always around the ball,” Bethea told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle after Ward shined in practice one day. “That’s one thing you see in film of him in college, (he’s) making plays.”

Recently, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said the competition for the nickel corner job isn’t over yet. But he listed Ward first when asked about the candidates competing for it.

“Obviously, Jimmie’s made nice progress and progresses every day,” Fangio told reporters. “He’s not a final product by any means yet. But he learns well, doesn’t repeat mistakes and has shown good skill level there. So, we’re very hopeful there.”

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