It was a year ago at this time that 49ers general manager Trent Baalke fell in love with Northern Illinois’ defensive back Jimmie Ward.
Ward had a big game in the Senior Bowl and was strong in practices, more than holding his own against stars from bigger schools.
“He proved he belonged,” Baalke told a writer for the 49ers website recently. “Any time a smaller-school guy can come into the Senior Bowl and play and move around like he did, he just proved he belonged in every aspect. The stage wasn’t going to be too big for him.”
As a result the 49ers used their No. 1 pick in the draft on Ward – a hybrid safety/cornerback who played nickel safety in his rookie season. It was a surprising pick for the 49ers. Going into the 2014 draft, many had predicted the team’s biggest need was a field-stretching wide receiver.
Instead, partly based on his up-close view at the Senior Bowl, the Niners took a young defensive back. Though Ward’s season was cut short by a foot injury, he’s expected to be completely fit for the team’s offseason program.
This past week, Baalke again was busy scouting the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. And, no doubt, many players caught the eye of the GM, who’ll have the 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Many believe the 49ers might use the pick on an offensive lineman, wide receiver or defensive lineman, but what they do with it might depend on what goes on in free agency (who goes, who stays, who is signed) and how the coaching staff comes together and what the team’s schemes will be.
It will also depend quite a bit on what players caught Baalke’s eye at the Senior Bowl.
Could it be Florida State guard Tre Jackson, who was named Outstanding Player for the South and might replace Mike Iupati? Or the North’s Outstanding Player, outside linebacker/pass rusher Nate Orchard of Utah? Or maybe the 49ers go all in on the running game (and replace Frank Gore) and bring in Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah or Minnesota’s David Cobb, who both had terrific games ?
This will be the 49ers’ highest draft choice since they took linebacker/pass rusher Aldon Smith with the seventh pick in 2011, and Baalke and his staff have nine selections stashed away for this draft. It’s a big offseason for the 49ers, who will have a new head coach and staff, big roster decisions and a need to get better and rebound from a very disappointing 8-8 season.
The Senior Bowl, really was the opening of the intense portion of the scouting season for the 49ers GM.
“You have nine chances to get better and you have to make every one of those count,” Baalke said. “It’s a process to get there. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of film to wach, a lot of pro days to attend and the (NFL) Combine. There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”