SANTA CLARA (CBS / AP) — Jimmie Ward ran his speedy 40-yard dash at the NFL combine on a bad foot just to show he could. He did so in 4.47 seconds, then had surgery a few weeks later in March.
The San Francisco 49ers loved that competitive fire in their new safety, along with his versatility and fierce tackling style.
San Francisco selected the defensive back from Northern Illinois with the 30th pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, and are ready to give him a chance to play as the third cornerback in nickel formations.
“The reason he ran is he wanted to prove he could run in the 4.4’s with a bad foot,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “He did it because he’s a competitor and wanted to show that he could run.”
Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh are committed to keeping Ward as a safety for now despite the urgency to fill a need at cornerback after releasing Carlos Rogers and then watching both Rogers and Tarell Brown join the Oakland Raiders across the bay.
Ward is ready to challenge Perrish Cox and Eric Wright for the nickel job. The person in that spot plays about 60 percent of the downs.
“I’m going to try to fit in wherever I can fit in. I’m versatile. I’m going to try to start,” said Ward, who started three college seasons at nickel. “I’m a competitor, I want to play. There’s a lot I can learn from those guys.”
The 5-foot-10, 193-pound Ward started all 14 games at strong safety last season, leading his team with 95 tackles — 62 solo—with a 10-yard sack and 10 pass deflections. While starting 39 of 55 games for his career, 12 of those came at left cornerback, so he does have experience playing that spot.
Baalke and Harbaugh are already praising his physical style and instincts to make the right play.
“Don’t mistake the size for lack of toughness because that’s not the case,” Baalke said. “Dynamite comes in all packages.”
The 49ers considered inquiries about trading up and also about moving back. Ultimately, with Ward still on the board, they went for the guy they consider a great fit.
“He’s got a knack for making the appropriate tackle. Sometimes it’s pretty violent,” Harbaugh said.
Ward said he sported a 49ers hat throughout the draft process, even before he visited team headquarters a couple of weeks back. The team gave him the cap and a few other gifts at the combine in February.
Why did he stick with the 49ers gear when he also made trips to see nine other teams—including the Raiders and Baltimore, coached by Harbaugh’s big brother, John?
“I have no clue,” he said. “It went with my sweater, it was red.”
Ward might have to wait his turn for a large role on one of the NFL’s most vaunted defenses.
San Francisco saw safety Donte Whitner leave for the Cleveland Browns, but replaced him with Pro Bowler and locker room leader Antoine Bethea on a $23 million, four-year deal.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock is returning for the Niners after receiving a four-year contract extension in November that takes him through 2017.
If healthy, cornerback Chris Culliver will likely play opposite Brock. He is working back after missing the 2013 season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee sustained during training camp.
Culliver pleaded not guilty last month to misdemeanor hit-and-run charges and felony possession of brass knuckles from a March 28 arrest in which San Jose police say he struck a bicyclist, then rammed a witness’ vehicle that was blocking him from leaving until officers arrived.
Baalke certainly hopes Ward can make an immediate impact during the highly anticipated first season at new Levi’s Stadium. That’s been the case with first-round picks in recent seasons since Baalke took over lead draft duties. In 2010, offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati started every game, and 2013 rookie safety Eric Reid immediately became a key defender.
Ward will report Saturday, then slowly get to work as he continues to recover from the foot surgery. He expects to be on the field in a few weeks.
He learned tackling by playing with two big brothers.
“I always wanted to tackle, always wanted to hit guys,” he said.
Ward was the first of San Francisco’s 11 selections in the draft—and the 49ers are expected to spend Day 2 looking for a wide receiver and maybe depth at linebacker.
They have a pair of second-round picks Friday, at Nos. 56 and 61, and three third-round choices.
© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.