Here is a link to my Friday column on the 49ers’ surprise selection of Jimmie Ward in the first round of the draft. The full text runs below:
SANTA CLARA — I’m trying to understand the 49ers pick in the first round of the draft. Jim Harbaugh came to the interview room after the 49ers chose Jimmie Ward and I’m trying to interpret Harbaugh’s words. Not always easy to do.
First, here’s the context. Ward is a safety. That means the Niners took a safety with their only pick in the first round. It was a surprising selection. Hearing they took a safety, you wanted to scratch your head and ask why.
They already have two safeties, Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid. In the offseason, they signed Bethea for $21 million, and Bethea is only 29 and is very good. Reid is better than very good. He’s terrific. So, choosing another safety, especially in the first round, seemed kind of redundant, not to mention off the point and silly-headed.
Niners fans had waited a long time for the pick. It happened about 3 hours into the draft, a very long night with lots of talking on television, lots of hot air. You might have thought the 49ers would trade up to get their heart’s desire.
Didn’t happen. They remained at No. 30. Took a safety.
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.
Harbaugh also said Ward will “compete at spots in our secondary. That’s something we value.”
That means he is versatile. He can be a safety and the third cornerback behind Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. The 49ers desperately needed a slot cornerback after Carlos Rogers went bye-bye. Rogers played left corner in standard formations. When the opposing offense went to three wide receivers, Rogers played slot cornerback. Now, Ward will play that position.
Well, he will compete to play that position. But the 49ers didn’t draft him in the first round to be a bench sitter.
General manager Trent Baalke spoke to the media after Harbaugh. Baalke seemed fully awake. He said, “We’re very confident in (Ward’s) cover ability. Our nickel has been on the field over 60 percent of the time and he’s going to get an opportunity to compete for that spot.”
Here’s something you should remember. This draft isn’t over. The Niners have two other obvious needs, wide receiver and running back. Yes, running back because they have no idea if Marcus Lattimore, who redshirted with an injury last season, is a back who can serve. But the 49ers had just one pick in the first round and they addressed perhaps their biggest need. And for that Baalke deserves big praise.
The 49ers have 10 picks coming up. They are loaded with picks. They are the Fort Knox of picks. Don’t be surprised if Baalke packages picks today and Saturday and moves up for his receiver and running back and even another cornerback. Don’t be surprised if, at some point, he chooses a quarterback.
The media asked Baalke many questions about Ward as a safety, hammered him with the questions. The meaning — and it was a fair meaning — was the Niners needed a corner, not a safety. There was extreme puzzlement on the part of the media.
Maybe the questions were too restrictive. The Niners, to their credit, are not pigeonholing their player. They see him as a defensive back, not as a mere safety or a mere cornerback. I guess you’d say the 49ers are thinking out of the box.
“The stage isn’t going to be too big for him,” Baalke said of Ward.
The NFL is a big stage, the biggest stage. On the first night of Draft 2014, the stage wasn’t too big for Trent Baalke. Took a risk. Potentially made a big hit.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.