Each year, we run a series of post called "90-in-90" here at Niners Nation. The idea is that we'll take a look at every single player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few different ways. This is to help give everyone a basic understanding of a roster. Of course, this roster will change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not strictly one per day but Fooch is a crazy person who manages this blog with no rhyme or reason and it's worked so far. Who am I to argue?
If there's one player on the San Francisco 49ers whose role -- next season and beyond -- I simply can't place, that player is Jimmie Ward. I didn't list a position before his name because I think it's a bit nebulous to give him a label we know full well may or may not fit. For now, let's go with the ambiguous "defensive back."
Ward was a first-round pick last season, the 30th overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. His selection was met with little fanfare, at least among folks around here and people I associate with. It's not that people felt like Ward was a bad player or that he wasn't particularly good in college, its that he seemed like more a safety than a cornerback, and a cornerback is what the 49ers really needed.
It's still what the 49ers need, as Ward didn't show much as a rookie. He came in and played in some nickel situations, though he played a lot outside as well when needed. The cornerback depth chart was kind of a mess last season, but Ward was playing significant time from the onset, playing 48 snaps in Week 1.
That's a lot of snaps for a rookie, and it showed. Ward had a terrible performance in that game, and was even worse in his 46 snaps against the Chicago Bears in Week 2. He was beat pretty consistently, and I thought that was his worst game of the season by far. His playing time dropped steadily from there, and he didn't get to 30-plus snaps again until Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints.
Drew Brees tends to make fools of his all, and Ward had a bad game there as well. That was the last game he played as a rookie, as his season was cut short due to injury. Looking over at Pro Football Focus, both Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox received positive grades overall, the only two 49ers corners who did so with significant playing time. Dontae Johnson, Tramaine Brock and Ward all received negative grades.
Ward was the worst though, and it wasn't even close. He was fit and uninjured when playing, but he was simply beaten by most receivers he covered. They juked him on routes, they fought for the ball better than he did and he ultimately looked a lot worse than Johnson, who was taken a few rounds later in the draft.
So what can we expect out of him going forward? At this stage, it's hard to tell, especially given the fact that he's not 100 percent recovered from his broken foot. He hopes to be ready for training camp, but that's right around the corner. The 49ers aren't exactly settled at safety, but I thought Johnson looked better, and the 49ers like what they have seen from Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker. At safety, Jaquiski Tartt may ultimately have a higher upside.
Ward will have to compete for whatever role he things he can grab. I doubt he's in line for any outside role at cornerback but I could still see him in the mix at the nickel spot. But he needs to get healthy, and he'll need to have a big showing in training camp or the preseason. I sincerely doubt anything is going to be handed to Ward.
It's worth noting that the 49ers probably drafted him as a safety of the future and I like his potential to play that position but I have no idea if things are heading in that direction again this time around.
Why he could improve:
Ward was thrown right into the fire, and though he got beat bad at times, his worst struggles were against great receivers and great quarterbacks. I feel like cornerback is one of the hardest positions to play in football, and one of the hardest to adapt to at the next level on top of that. Maybe Ward will wind up being a bad pick at the end of the day but for now, he's young, talented and has plenty of potential to prove himself on the field.
Why he could regress:
If Ward doesn't win a spot starting at the nickel spot at the very least, we can call that regression. It's also possible that he simply doesn't fit what the new coaching staff wants, and while I'm interested in seeing him at safety that hinges on one of Eric Reid or Antoine Bethea getting hurt. Ward may never see the field next season. Regression wouldn't be surprising, especially considering the fact that he's recovering from a broken foot.
Odds of making the roster:
A first-round pick being released before the start of his second season isn't unheard of, but I think the only way he's not on the roster in 2015-16 is if he is somehow traded. And that will only happen if he's flipped for a late-round pick, though that's just me creating a possibility for his exit. In reality, he's going to make the roster, and we'll go ahead and call it 99.99 percent that he makes it. Unless aliens.