Lowell Cohn: 49ers' surprising 1st pick makes a lot of sense (w/video)

  • Northern Illinois defensive back Jimmie Ward (15) strips the ball from Kansas wide receiver D.J. Beshears (20) during the first half of their NCAA college football game in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. The pass was ruled incomplete on the play. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

If you think the 49ers made a mistake by taking a safety, hold that thought. In fact, throw it away. Shout, "Good for the 49ers."

For starters, they drafted for defense. They are a dominant defensive team and they kept that tradition going, maintained their identity as a bunch of rough and tough defenders.

Remind yourself of that. Teams entertain with offense, but they win with defense. And the 49ers needed a cornerback and they took Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois. When you think of him as a safety — not a cornerback — I say, "Not so fast."

Ward is listed as a safety, but the 49ers may not use him as a safety — not exclusively, not primarily.

Harbaugh did some explaining after the draft. Harbaugh, by the way, seemed all done in. Bone tired. Spoke in a whisper. He is a puzzling guy, open to endless interpretation. Like a character from Dostoevsky. Maybe he was worn out. Maybe the Niners didn't get a player he wanted and he was working that out in his noodle. Or maybe he was just in a bad mood — having one of those days.

He had these things to say about Ward. Call this a combined quote:

"Competing in the secondary as a safety and a nickel. Something we thought he would excel at. Just a step ahead of the rest of the defense ... He's going to play the safety position with corner skills ... He'll have that shot as a nickel player ... He is a presence."

What's the key piece of Harbaugh information?

Simple. Ward will compete to be a nickel cornerback. Point of information — Ward played nickel back at Northern Illinois. He played nickel 40 percent of the time. That was Ward's informal estimate during a conference call with the media.

A nickel is a cornerback. A nickel plays the slot. A nickel is a physical cornerback, someone who can hit runners near the line of scrimmage and make them suffer. Exactly what the Niners need.

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