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Grant Cohn: 49ers choose safety Jimmie Ward in 1st round of NFL draft (w/video)

  • Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward (15) intercepts a pass intended for Toledo wide receiver Alonzo Russell (9) in the first quarter an NCAA college football game in Toledo, Ohio, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

"Ball skills" means Ward can locate the ball when it's in the air, and he can catch it once he's located it. He intercepted seven passes last season. The 49ers' former strong safety — Donte Whitner — and former nickel back — Rogers — were not known for their "ball skills." Whitner was a hitter who couldn't cover. Rogers was a cover man who couldn't hit or catch.

"We're very confident in Ward's cover ability," said Trent Baalke, "yet very impressed by the way he plays the game physically. He's a very physical football player. Don't mistake his size for a lack of toughness. That's not the case.He's energetic, he's got a short memory and he's a highly competitive man."

Nickel backs tend to be small and quick, because they cover slot receivers who are small and quick. So nickel backs tend to be poor tacklers. Rogers was a poor tackler. Not Ward. He's a tackling machine. He had 319 tackles in his four-year college career.

"Those guys need to be able to tackle," said Baalke, referring to nickel backs. "They need to be able to blitz. They need to be able to hold up in the box. (Ward) has been able to hold up physically. He plays a physical style of football. He also has the rare traits to be able to cover. There is just a lot of versatility to his game. The fact that he can play it physically and play it mentally is extremely important."

Draft gurus considered Jason Verrett from TCU to be the best nickel back in the draft. The San Diego Chargers took him with the 25th pick. But Verrett is smaller than Ward and had trouble holding up physically in college. That's a deal-breaker for the Niners. They want a strong, dependable nickel back, like Ward.

"The last two years, our Nickel has been on the field over 60 percent of the time," Baalke said. "That's a starter in our opinion. That's a guy that's going to get a lot of playing time. He's going to get an opportunity to compete for that spot."

Ward suffered a fractured foot bone last season. He can't compete for any position until doctors clear his surgically repaired foot. "They put a screw in the metatarsal," Ward said on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. "They took some bone marrow out of my hip and inserted into the crack to help speed up the process."

Ward says he expects doctors to clear him in the next two or three weeks. Baalke said he expects Ward to be cleared by the start of training camp in late July. As long as he's cleared before the season starts, he will fill a big need for the 49ers.


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