Each offseason, we put together a series of articles called 90-in-90, in which we take a quick look at each member of the San Francisco 49ers 90-man training camp roster. For veterans, we look at why they might improve or regress, and what kind of impact we expect in the upcoming season. For rookies, we look at the expected impact, and odds of making the roster. With the season finished, it is time to look at how we did with some of those expectations for the rookies. Last week, James started the series with a look at Chris Borland. Today, we take a look at first round pick, Jimmie Ward.
The 49ers drafted Ward out of Northern Illinois. He was listed at safety, but from day one, it became clear the 49ers were going to focus him on nickel back. He did solid work covering slot receivers in college, and with the growth in three- and four-wide receiver sets, it made sense to invest in a nickel back at some point. Ward could very well succeed Antoine Bethea as a safety, but for now, nickel back is his focus.
As with Borland, David Neumann put together the 90-in-90 post for Ward. David viewed him as a fantastic athlete with a knack for being around the ball. He believed his athleticism and coverage skills would make him a better option than Carlos Rogers in the slot. Finally, he viewed him as a capable run defender, which could make him a little more valuable in the nickel than your typical defensive back.
Shortly before the start of training camp, I put together an article looking at the potential best and worst case scenarios for Ward. Best case was fully healthy and a potential Eric Reid type of Pro Bowl season. Worst case was either his foot injury slows him in camp and is a nagging problem, or he's healthy and just struggles to hang with NFL-level players.
Ward had an up and down season, to say the least. He did get into training camp healthy after sitting out much of the offseason workout program. He had foot surgery prior to the draft, and that was a concern after the 49ers selected. Injuries to the cornerback depth chart got him a lot of first team nickel snaps, and by Week 1 he was the nickel back. He was under the radar in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, but things got ugly in a hurry in Week 2. The 49ers hosted the Chicago Bears, and Ward got the unenviable task of covering Brandon Marshall in the red zone. Marshall had his way with Ward to the tune of three touchdowns.
That was far and away the worst stretch of the season for Ward. He was never great, but he showed improvement as the season moved along. He had some notable struggles in Week 10, but that was overshadowed by injury news. In Week 6, Ward suffered what was listed on the Week 7 injury report as a quadricep injury. He sat out all three Week 7 practices, and was inactive against the Denver Broncos. He would return to action in Week 9 and 10, but then sat out Week 11 practices due to a foot injury. He was subsequently placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
In December, Ward discussed the injury, stating he refractured the foot and bent the screw that had previously been placed. Ward said he believes he suffered the fracture in the second quarter of the Saints game. He ended up finishing the game.
We saw some flashes of Ward's talent in 2014. While he did not show everything David and I considered in his upside, he had his moments. He missed the on-field portion of the offseason workout program last year, so the learning curve was arguably a little steeper when he got into training camp. All things considered, his on-field work was a big step in the right direction.
The Marshall game is difficult to forget, but I would contend the bigger issue for Ward will be staying healthy. The 49ers could see some significant turnover at cornerback, with Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver both due to hit free agency. Ward is in line to be the starting nickel back either way, but free agency departures will make his presence as somewhat of a veteran all the more important.