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 lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.



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  1. htwaits

    That “step ahead” comment about understanding what the offense is doing is a great trait. That’s what they say about Earl Thomas in Seattle and he can play slot. Win, win if he can handle NFC slot receivers. Let’s hope.

    May 9th, 2014 12:33 am

  2. Streetglide

    He’s a CB regardless of what he was called in college. Main thing is the guy is a baller, a hitter and has a mean streak. He’s the response to Percy Harvin. Jimmie is fast and lays some hellacious wood on anyone unfortunate enough to be coming his way.

    It was a great pick, pure Baalke…

    May 9th, 2014 6:54 am

  3. dharte

    But the key fact to remember, Lowell (beyond the fact the kid is undersized, injured and just had surgery…) is that 40 time: 4.5.

    Slot corners cover receivers who are much faster than that. And the point here is to beat Seattle. Everything they do should be focussed toward that goal.

    Percy Harvin runs a 4.3. Who will guard him? Culliver, off of a serious knee injury (assuming he’s not suspended or in jail)? Tramaine Brock is much slower than that. Maybe Eric Wright who used to be good once upon a time?

    Makes no sense. They needed two or three excellent players and had twelve picks to trade with.

    Frustrating to watch. I miss Bill Walsh, Lowell. I bet you do, too.

    May 9th, 2014 7:12 am

  4. B-Rad

    And the Niners’ saga of late first round draft futility continues.

    2008…..29th pick
    The Niners needed an OL-man. There were 5 really good ones all projected
    to go in the first 20 picks…they did.
    The Niners’ stayed at 29 and took DT Kentwan Balmer – lousy player but a
    great name because he played like a processor in a mortuary somewhere.
    They got their OL-man 10 picks later when they took Chile Rachal out of
    USC. Rachal was widely criticized for coming out early – he couldn’t play
    much either but credit the Niners for providing him with plenty of money
    to help his sick mom.

    2012……30th pick
    There was talk of them moving up to the late teens to take Kendall
    Wright, a small, shifty receiver (see Brandin Cooks this year) and who
    ultimately was taken at #20 and who now has more receptions and
    yards than either of the two WR’s taken before him.
    The Niners stayed at #30 and took A.J. Jenkins as we all know only too well.
    How excited Harbaugh and Balke were when they both opened their
    envelopes and low and behold they had both wanted A.J.
    As I recall Lowell’s reaction here was basically “WHAT?????”

    2 year stats:…………………REC’s…………..YDS…………….TD’s
    Kendall Wright………………158…………….1705…………..6
    A.J. Jenkins………………………8………………130……………0.

    2013…….31st pick
    They needed a safety. There were two really good ones – Kenny
    Vaccaro and Eric Reid. When N.O. took Vaccaro at #15 Balke quickly
    moved up to take Reid at #18.

    2014…….30th pick
    This guy was projected to go from the 2nd to (more often) 4th or 5th
    rounds and was rated from the 3rd best to 11th best safety in the draft.
    When you see this guy flying around, remember he played at Northern
    Illinois and his opponents are now investment advisors at your Wells
    Fargo down the street.

    I think I’m going to have a sick headache.

    May 9th, 2014 9:27 am

  5. Dan

    If you combined American Idol and The Apprentice, you’d end up with the NFL draft. Athletes who have spent years trying to reach a goal, line up to be selected for the honor of playing in the NFL. They will be locked in to contracts that restricts their earning ability for the next few years. Only the really talented or well coached may make it to become a “star” for a brief period of time. For those making the selections, they usually have to wait until Black Monday to learn if they will still have their job this time next year.

    May 9th, 2014 1:44 pm

  6. Johnc

    I am concerned about Ward’s size and speed . I am sure he is a great player with good instincts…hope the Niners made the right call.

    Unrelated, I really enjoyed Grant’s “Pocket Change” column in Press Democrat last week.

    May 9th, 2014 9:53 pm

  7. Streetglide

    What the hell are you talking about — “size?” they guy is 195lbs. on a 5’11″ frame. That’s plenty big enough to play the slot which is where he is going to spend his days. The guy is not undersized. And he is plenty fast and most of all plenty mean.

    Funny how the talking heads on NFL TV are raving about how good Baalke and crew did this draft while you whiney boys are going to have sick headaches. Wimps…

    Oh yeah AJ.. he got run out of town by the media. I am confident that KC will develop him into a more than decent receiver.

    One last thing: the Yorks are the stingiest owners in pro sports. Look at the new stadium. It’s in Santa Clara cause the land is cheaper there. It looks like a high school stadium on steroids, a real crackerbox, stip-mall cheap piece of nothing.

    That’s who Baalke works for. You don’t think they have input in the draft? Of course they do and that’s why the Niners draft out of small schools where players cost peanuts…

    May 10th, 2014 7:05 am

  8. MJ

    Streetglide, you may need to do your research. The 49ers new stadium cost 1.3 billion to build. That is more expensive than the proposed costs of the new Falcons and Vikings stadiums. It cost 300 million more than the cost of the Cowboys stadium which is just 5 years old and is the “marvel” of the NFL.

    You may not like the design of the stadium, but they spared no expense.

    It really sounds like you might be a SF resident who is pissed at the fact that the team moved some 40 miles south and is grasping at straws for reasons to be mad. How about you go to a game first before calling it a cheap piece of nothing? Would you rather they be playing at Candlestick for another year or two or 15 since SF city council couldn’t get out of their own way to make the stadium happen. They sure as heck wouldn’t be having a SB next year had they stayed at Candlestick.

    And about the players, your complaint doesn’t seem very valid when you look at the amount of 1st round picks they have playing on their team…and high first rounders; Michael Crabtree(10th), Patrick Willis (11th), Vernon Davis (6th), Joe Staley (28th), A. Davis (11th), Iupati (17th), Aldon (7th), and Reid (18th), not to mention a lot of these guys have all been extended at near top level money, big contracts have been paid out to Bowman, Brooks, Brock as well as the large contracts for Justin, Frank, Bathea, and just traded for Stevie Johnson whose in year 3 of his 5 year 36 million dollar contract. To say the Yorks are cheap shows, to me, a true lack of knowledge of their ownership.

    May 10th, 2014 10:15 pm

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