A Healthy Ward Ready to Compete for High-Impact Position

Niners' No. 1 pick has been cleared for action when team opens training camp next week

Finally, Jimmie Ward is cleared for takeoff.

The 49ers’ No. 1 draft choice – who hasn’t yet been able to practice because of an injury – is now completely healthy and ready to start work at the Niners’ training camp in Santa Clara.

Rookies could start reporting Wednesday, with the first practice set for July 24.

Ward, a safety from Northern Illinois, had a foot injury that kept him on the sidelines during organized team activities and the full-roster minicamp in June.

But Ward is part of a 49ers grand experiment that will shift him toward the competition at nickel corner, and he’ll need on-field work during training camp and exhibition games if he’s going to develop in time for the team’s regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Dallas.

In his absence this spring, veteran Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris, a second-year pro who excelled on special teams in 2013, got most of the snaps at the third cornerback spot.

As Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee wrote this week, Ward is a multi-dimensional player (he also played corner and nickel in college) who could bring some special skills to the 49ers secondary.

“The 49ers are eyeing him for the nickel spot because of his coverage skills and – this is where he could distinguish himself from Cox and Morris – his strength as a tackler,” wrote Barrows.

In June, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said the team likes Ward’s skills and potential, but Ward won’t be handed a job.

“I don’t think you can assume that,” Fangio told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “He’s going to certainly get every opportunity to, but he’s missed all this time, he’s learning, he’s a rookie, et cetera. We’ll have to be a little patient with him.”

At the same time, Fangio said he was happy with the work being put in by Cox and Morris.

It’s possible, however, that once Ward gets into the mix on the field, he may quickly show why the 49ers like him.

San Francisco saw Ward as a player who can make a big impact in nickel coverage which is playing a more prominent role in the NFL now that it’s a pass-oriented league. Fangio told analyst Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated recently that the Niners are in their nickel scheme 60 percent of the time, so the third cornerback spot actually has become a starting position.

And Ward showed at Northern Illinois that he has a major-league skillset to play both safety and cover slot receivers.

After watching extensive tape of Ward heading into the NFL draft, Farrar wrote about Ward’s special talents. He apparently saw the same things that 49ers GM Trent Baalke saw.

Wrote Farrar: “(Ward) plays well everywhere in the defensive backfield – from deep center field to slot cornerback. … Has tremendous range and can cover a lot of ground in a big hurry, and he’s on point when he gets there. He doesn’t overreach as much as you’d expect for a player who’s going all out at all times.

“Ward makes plays in the passing game from inside seams to outside the numbers and can roll back into deep coverage from linebacker depth. He times his hits exceptionally well to deflect and break up passes … plays a lot of slot coverage and this may be his most appealing value to NFL teams. His footwork is outstanding and his backpedal speed really shows up on tape.

“Doesn’t allow a lot of yards after catch. If a receiver grabs a catch in his area, Ward is quick to end the play.”

Now that he’s back at full speed, it will be interesting to see how quickly he can make progress in the competition against Cox and Morris.

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