49ers fill biggest need in out-of-box way
May, 9, 2014
By Bill Williamson | ESPN.com
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers were supposed to be powerbrokers of the first round.
Everyone was expecting them to go make the big move for a top-end receiver in an effort to compete with Super Bowl champion -- and heated NFC West rival -- Seattle.
Instead, the 49ers ended up addressing their one true need -- albeit in an unexpected way.
Instead of trading up for stud LSU receiver Odell Beckham or taking one of the glamour cornerbacks, the 49ers grabbed Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward with the 30th pick.
At first glance, it smacked of a curious reach. Yes, Ward was a scout's favorite, but he was considered more of a second-round pick. And he played a position the 49ers made their biggest offseason investment at -- by signing veteran Antoine Bethea to a four-year, $23 million deal.
With receivers Cody Latimer and Marqise Lee still on the board, picking Ward did not initially appear to make much sense. But after digesting the pick, I could see why the 49ers made this pick.
The 49ers' benchmark is defense. With star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman out until about midseason with a torn ACL and star linebacker Aldon Smith's future clouded by a potential NFL suspension, the 49ers need to keep their edge in the early season.
This move should ensure they stay stout in the secondary. In addition to safety Donte Whitner (who Bethea replaces), the 49ers parted ways with their second and third cornerbacks -- Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers -- this offseason. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are expected to start.
The 49ers want to see Ward become the nickel. He played there often at Northern Illinois. Some teams are using safeties as a nickel and it seems the 49ers are going that route.
There were rumblings the 49ers didn't like any of the four cornerbacks that went in the first round -- Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, Darqueze Dennard and Jason Verrett. They had the means to trade up and pick any of them and didn't.
Instead, they eyed the hard-hitting, competitive and smart Ward.
This may be out of the box, but it seems like a 49ers move. Having Reid, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season, the steady Bethea and Ward on the field together makes this a strong secondary.
49ers general manager Trent Baalke raved about Ward's competitive nature. Coach Jim Harbaugh simply said: "He loves football."
Baalke, who saw Ward play live once, said it was telling that when he asked scouts which games of Ward's he should watch, multiple scouts said, "Pick one." It was Ward's consistency that stood out to the 49ers.
Ward, who had the second most interceptions in the country last season with seven, led his team in tackles and interceptions the past two seasons. Baalke doesn't think coming from a smaller conference will be too much for Ward.
"The stage isn't too big for him," Baalke said.
Ward showed he had the mental toughness for the NFL when he ran for scouts with a broken foot, which is expected to be completely healed by training camp. Ward posted a 4.48 40-time on a bad wheel. That made Baalke smile.
The 49ers may not have stolen headlines with this pick, but they did add a key component to what makes them the 49ers -- an ornery defense.