Niners' No. 1 Pick Will be Playing Catch-up

After missing practice time in OTAs and minicamp, Jimmie Ward has fallen behind others in battle for slot cornerback spot

When the 49ers selected Jimmie Ward with the 30th pick in last month’s draft, they were hoping the former standout safety from Northern Illinois could bolster the team’s pass defense.

It was hoped that Ward, a 5-foot-11, 191-pounder, could adjust quickly to his new role as a slot/nickel cornerback and backup safety and make immediate contributions as a rookie starter.

Ward was a physical player at Northern Illinois, and was rated as perhaps the best cover safety in the draft. In their quest to revamp their roster to overtake the Seahawks at the top of the NFC West, the 49ers liked Ward’s skills before the draft and believe he can be a key addition to the defense, the way safety Eric Reid was in 2013.

“He has an instinct to react to play before anyone else sees it,” Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group recently. General manager Trent Baalke added that, “There was a lot of like in this guy” throughout the evaluation process.

“I don’t remember watching a bad game (on film) of him, and that stuck with us,” Baalke told Inman.

But now that rookie camp, organized team activities (OTAs) and full minicamp are out of the way, Ward’s status as a potential impact player in 2014 is in doubt.

Ward, who had foot surgery in March, wasn’t active for any on-field work during those periods. And, while he’s expected to be ready to go at the start of training camp on July 23, it’s possible that he’s now so far behind that it’s going to be difficult for him to catch up.

“It’s going to be important for him – and for us as coaches – to realize he’s behind and just fight through that,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. "Because he’s not going to look good early.

“You can sit in all these meetings you want, but the best way a player improves is: meet, go to practice, come back and meet some more, learn what you did wrong, learn some new things, go practice. …. He’s not getting any of that practice. He can be practicing mentally in his head all he wants. That only takes you to a certain point. He’s got to go out there and experience it.”

For now, at least, veteran Perrish Cox and second-year man Darryl Morris are ahead of Ward at the slot cornerback position, and have been playing well. Morris – who may be the team’s fastest player – could be a special talent, in fact.

But with veteran corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers now gone and Chris Culliver returning from an injury after missing all of the 2013 regular season, 49ers coaches were hoping Ward could step in quickly, just as Reid did, to make an immediate contribution. That may still be possible, but the loss of practice time to injury is going to make Ward’s route much more difficult.

“I don’t think you can assume (that Ward will earn the nickel corner job),” Fangio told Inman last week. “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 all have to be a little patient with him.”

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