The San Francisco 49ers found a way to address one of their biggest needs, but they did it in a way not many saw coming.
Instead of moving up in the first round from their perch at No. 30 overall, the 49ers went with safety Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois. Ward will begin his career learning to play nickel corner while being groomed to replace strong safety Antoine Bethea, who the 49ers signed in free agency this spring.
Coming into the draft many believed the 49ers - armed with six picks in the first three rounds - would trade up to the early to middle portion of the first round to find their cornerback or wide receiver. Instead, they stood pat and went with Ward, viewed by evaluators as an extremely smart and talented defensive back.
"We're very confident in his cover ability yet very impressed with the way he plays the game physically. He's a very physical football player," general manager Trent Baalke said. "Don't mistake the size for lack of toughness because that's not the case."
Standing over 5-10 and 193 pounds, Ward started all 14 games at strong safety, leading the team with 95 tackles and seven interceptions. He was officially listed as a safety, but Ward said he played in the slot roughly half of his snaps.
"Has an instinct for reacting to plays before anybody else sees them. Just a step ahead of the rest of the defense and covers a lot of ground," Jim Harbaugh said. "Covers up a lot of holes."
With the departure of veteran Carlos Rogers - the team's nickel corner for the previous three seasons - the 49ers had a clear need at cornerback. In getting Ward, they landed a versatile defensive back that could address two needs.
Ward had surgery to repair a fractured foot March 11 and is unlikely to appear at rookie minicamp next month. But the team expects him to be fully healed before the start of training camp.
Despite his injury, Ward said he ran the 40 at his pro day in the 4.4s, giving the team a good indication of his toughness and competitiveness.
"He's energetic, he's got a short memory. Highly competitive young man that kind of beat the odds his whole career. We're excited to have him," Baalke said.
Bethea will be the team's starting safety in 2014 and turns 30 right around the start of training camp. The 49ers plan on grooming Ward to become his eventual replacement.
And by electing not to trade up, San Francisco has 10 picks remaining in the draft, including two in the second round and three in the third.
The second and third rounds are scheduled for Friday with the completion of the draft coming Saturday.
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