We don't know anything. We don't know anything. We don't know a single damn thing. When the 49ers selected defensive back Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois with their first round selection, this was the first thought that ran through my head.
All of the pre-draft rumors – plus the volume of draft picks at San Francisco's disposal entering the draft – pointed towards a move up into the middle of the first round to select a big name player. One of the top wide receivers or cornerbacks were surely coming our way. Until they didn't. Despite seemingly every football person alive believing that's what would happen, Trent "Draft Ninja" Baalke sat back, let the draft come to him and selected a player that no one anticipated he would. You'd think we'd be used to this routine by now.
Naturally, my next course of action was to go to the tape and attempt to find out what it was about Jimmie Ward that caught Harbaalke's eye. It didn't take long before that became incredibly apparent. The more I get to know Jimmie Ward, the more enamored I become with the things his versatility could allow the 49ers to do on the defensive side of the ball.
Ward's top asset is his coverage ability. He lined up all throughout the secondary at NIU (with about a third of his career starts coming at cornerback and the rest at safety), but spent the majority of his time in the slot during the games that I watched. Ward has the quickness and change of direction skills to play man coverage on slot receivers along with the speed to close if the receiver manages to get a step on him.
On this play from NIU's 2012 bowl game against Florida State, you can see Ward lined up in press man coverage as the slot corner to the top of the image. He doesn't get a great bump but rebounds well, quickly opening his hips to turn and run, sticking with the receiver every step of the way.
Here, you again find Ward in the slot at the top of the image. The receiver runs a delayed seam route, first acting as if he's going to block for the WR screen before breaking inside up the hash marks. Ward doesn't bite on the fake, undercuts the route and makes the pick. This type of play popped up several times on tape with Ward having the speed to stick to the receiver's hip up the seam or on crossing routes before jumping in front to make a play on the ball, either by hauling in the interception as he did in the above GIF or by simply deflecting the pass. There was perhaps no better example than the following play against Toledo, which showcases several of his skills.
Ward aligns to the bottom of the image on this play, this time playing with outside leverage about nine yards off the middle receiver in Toledo's trips formation. Starting with outside leverage on the receiver leaves him at an immediate disadvantage against the crossing route. But Ward diagnoses the route, uses his athleticism to close the gap – not an easy task when chasing a receiver across the field – before finding the ball and getting a hand on it. If the play was over right here it would be impressive, but Ward wasn't done yet. He flashes some incredible body control and concentration to bring the ball into his body one-handed as he's falling to the ground, securing it for an interception. Ward has the playmaking ability that every defense would love to have.
It wasn't just from the slot that Ward was able to have an impact, he also showed good coverage ability when over the top in deep zone coverage. He has an incredible knack for getting to the WR at just the right moment to separate him from the ball and while he has the ability to punish potential pass catchers with the big hit, he's smart about picking his spots and delivers his pain in a manner that should please NFL referees and the league office. A perfect example of this came in Ward's final game as an amateur against Utah State.
Ward is aligned at about the 16-yard line towards the bottom of the image. Utah State fakes jet sweep action and is looking to take a shot toward the end zone on the post route by the outside receiver to the top of the image. Once Ward recognizes pass, he begins to sink toward the deep middle of the field, offering inside help to the cornerback defending the post route. The corner makes a nice play to challenge the receiver for the ball and Ward puts shoulder to chest, eliminating any hope of pulling the pass in.
In the instance that Ward actually allows a player to make a catch in his presence, he's almost always in position to make the immediate tackle and limit any big yards after the catch, a common trait among many San Francisco defenders and something the departed Tarell Brown did very well. While it needs to be noted that his competition in the MAC wasn't exactly the SEC, you just didn't see receivers separating from him in the games I watched.
The 49ers' defense demands that secondary players be effective tacklers and willing to participate in defending the run and Ward should be adequate in this area. Any limitations he may have defending the run are likely to be a result of his stature, not a lack of effort or toughness. At 5'10" and just a shade over 190 pounds, Ward is not a physically imposing presence. He's certainly not afraid to mix it up with the big boys in the box, but the reality is if he ends up spending a lot of time near the line of scrimmage, bigger bodies are going to be able to latch on and move him with relative ease. The good news is this is something I think the 49ers will be able to hide, but we'll get to that shortly.
Even if it doesn't always work out in his favor, Ward is more than willing to take on a blocker in the run game if necessary. On the play above, again from the Florida State bowl game, Ward creeps into the box late toward the top of the image. After the snap, he doesn't hesitate to fly right into the heart of the running play, submarining FSU's lead blocker and effectively blowing up the play and forcing the ball carrier to cut back directly towards a waiting defender.
Ward is also able to make tackles in space, again showing a knack for when to go for the big hit and when to simply wrap up and get the running back to the ground. Going back to the Toledo game, we can see Ward come down from his safety position to make the tackle just as the running back is about to break through the wide open second level of the defense. "He can be a violent, cut tackler," said Coach Harbaugh about Ward, which is exactly what we see on this play. He plays to his size, stays low and gets the ball carrier to the ground.
Ward's speed can also be an asset in the running game as he's able to track down quicker backs when they attempt to get to the sideline. On the play above, Utah State runs a jets sweep to the top of the image. Ward gets downhill in a hurry, side-hops the block by the wide receiver and gets the runner to the ground for a short gain.
One of my favorite things about Ward's tape is how aware he is of what's happening around him. In this video that went up on 49ers.com on Saturday, Ward identifies himself as a tape junkie and it shows on the field. He's rarely out of position and always seems to find himself around the ball.
Here, Ward is aligned about five yards off the ball at the top of the image. Florida State runs a jet sweep away from him, but rather than attempting to chase the run down from the backside of the play, Ward trusts his teammates and stays home. After the rest of NIU's defense cuts the runner off and forces the cut back, Ward is in perfect position and makes the impressive open field tackle.
On the rare occasion the offense is able to fool Ward, he's able to make up for it with his great athleticism. In the above play, Utah State lines up in a wildcat formation with their quarterback split out wide to the offense's left. After a handoff, the Utah State back tosses it back to the quarterback coming around on the reverse. Not a single NIU defender is initially tracking the Utah State receiver streaking down the field all alone. Ward is among the first to recognize it and is able to make up nearly a 10-yard gap – with some help from an under thrown pass – to break up what looked to be an easy touchdown.
This trait of being able to make a play with things are breaking down and not quite going to script – something we see a good dose of when facing Seattle – is a valuable asset and is something I'm sure the coaching staff loves to see.
How does he fit?
If I haven't done a good job in making it apparent, Ward is an incredibly versatile player. He does a number of things well, few things poorly and has played all over the field. Both Baalke and Harbaugh said Ward will compete at nickel back and safety during his rookie season and there are a lot of exciting ways they could choose to use him within that role.
With Ward handling nickel duties, the 49ers' primary sub-package will be a "Big Nickel" look, giving San Francisco a third safety on the field as their fifth defensive back as opposed to cornerback. Several teams, notably the Giants and Packers, have had success with this look, with the Giants even using it as their base defense at various points. According to Baalke, San Francisco has used their nickel defense over 60 percent of the time during the last two seasons. Even if it were to take a year or two for Ward to unseat newly acquired veteran safety Antoine Bethea, if all goes to plan he will effectively be a starter from day one. You don't take a player in the first round who you don't expect to have an impact right away, even if it's not necessarily in a full-time role. They'll be looking to get him on the field as much as possible.
Carlos Rogers was an effective blitzer from the nickel back spot and I think Ward has the ability to be even better. Ward is a much better athlete and will be significantly faster coming off the edge. I mentioned before that Ward's size might be a problem in run defense if blockers are able to get their hands on him in the box. I don't think this will be a huge deal for him within the 49ers' defense. At NIU, Ward was clearly the best player on that defense and was somewhat forced to be omnipresent because of it. There was a feeling that if Ward didn't make a play, it might not get made. That won't be a problem in San Francisco. The defense, and front seven in particular, is loaded with talent and will be occupying the blockers in the run game more often than not. This should free up Ward to be in attack mode with more space to work with and fewer offensive lineman who want to rip his head off to deal with.
He's likely to see a variety of coverage assignments. We've covered how effective he is in man coverage in the slot. I would be very surprised if Ward doesn't draw Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin and possibly even Andre Ellington when the 49ers take on their divisional foes. It also seems reasonable to expect Ward to pick up some of the slack for the injured NaVorro Bowman, who has handled opposing running backs and tight ends in pass coverage in tandem with Patrick Willis for the past several seasons.
While I think the Big Nickel sub-package will be the most prominent, San Francisco could also choose to go with a pass heavy package, bringing in Ward to replace Bethea along with whoever wins the third cornerback spot – I'm also imagining a pass rush heavy defensive line consisting of Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Tank Carradine and Corey Lemonier, which would be all kinds of fun – in obvious passing situations or against more pass happy teams.
We won't know exactly how Vic Fangio will use the newest addition to his defense until September rolls around, but Ward's skill set provides him with a lot of options and could offer Fangio the opportunity to add more creativity to the defense than we've seen in the past three seasons.
I think if you look at the film, he plays well week in and week out. I don't remember watching a bad game on him.
That was Trent Baalke's response when asked if there were any specific games that stood out to him when evaluating Ward and I couldn't agree more. In fact, in the cut-ups that I watched it was difficult to find very many bad plays. That's not to say that he's a sure thing. In the NFL, nothing ever is. I'd be remiss if I didn't again bring up the opening sentence of this article. We don't know anything. At this stage we really don't. We have no idea how an undersized, small school player is going to make the transition to the big, bad NFC West. But the more I watch him, the more excited I get and I have a good feeling it won't take long seeing him in red and gold for you to feel the same.