The 49ers selected the former four-year Husky at No. 30 overall.
The 5’11’’, 193-pounder compiled 319 tackles (6.0 for loss), 11 interceptions and four forced fumbles during his collegiate days. He led the MAC and ranked second in the NCAA with seven picks in 2013, including one that went for a touchdown.
However, against all conventional logic, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke stayed put with the team’s designated selection in the opening round.
He did not trade up, move down or package a collection of present or future picks.
He did not draft a cornerback, wide receiver or top-level game-changer at any position.
And he certainly did not heed the advice, strategy or predictions that flowed from the million and one predraft big boards and first-round mocks (including yours truly).
No, he drafted an undersized (Bleacher Report), penalty-prone (CBS Sports) and low-intangible (ESPN Insider; subscription required) defensive back projected as a late-second-to-early-third prospect by NFL.com.
So, why is this a good thing?
Why did avoiding trading up for a multitude of high-impact receivers (Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks or Kelvin Benjamin) or corners (Kyle Fuller or Jason Verrett) amount to a positive tactic?
Because above all else, Baalke knows defense—and he knows what fits.
The 49ers ultimate authority on talent acquisition has proven time and again his acumen for identifying scheme-compatible players on the defensive side of the ball.
Whether as vice president of player personnel or general manager, he has continually infused this team with offense-stifling additions.
In 2010, Baalke landed eventual three-time first-team All-Pro NaVorro Bowman in Round 3 with the 91st pick.
He then shocked the NFL world by—off-the-field issues notwithstanding—taking Aldon Smith with the seventh overall pick in 2011. The former Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro owns 42 sacks in 43 career games.
Baalke followed that up two rounds later by selecting current starting corner Chris Culliver at No. 80. The stat geniuses at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded him a top-10 ranking with his 49.3 completion percentage allowed in 2012.
Now, the 2012 class was an abject failure when viewed through 50/50 hindsight.
But without the benefit of revisionist history, linebacker Darius Fleming (No. 165), safety Trent Robinson (No. 180) and outside linebacker Cam Johnson (No. 237) were all seen as exceptional value picks. Each draftee brought pro-level talent and high upside.
And in last year’s draft, Baalke obviously nailed the process with Pro Bowl free safety Eric Reid in Round 1.
Corey Lemonier (No. 88) also showed promise as an outside pass-rusher. Inside ‘backer Nick Moody and defensive linemen Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial, who both essentially redshirted in 2013 due to injury, will all provide dynamic contributions this season as well.
Coming back full circle, Ward will do the same with his versatility.
Despite Reid and offseason signee Antoine Bethea locked in at both safety positions, Ward will find a much-needed, if not vital role, in nickel packages.
“The nickel’s been on the field 60 percent of the time for us,” said Baalke to The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows. “So that’s a starter in our opinion.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh also praised the player who manned the slot in 50 percent of his snaps at Northern Illinois.
But again, Ward isn’t the bona fide put-you-over-the-top type of asset.
He’s not Beckham or Fuller or Cooks or Verrett. And he’s certainly no Mike Evans—the 6’5’’, catch-everything wideout who would have helped the 49ers win Super Bowl XLVII or the NFC Championship game last season.
Since Baalke believed “the price of doing business...near the Top 10 became too steep,” he retained his 10 remaining picks and opted for an intelligent, tough and instinctual prospect.
He seized the rights to an in-the-box, slot and deep center field defender who “shows above-average instincts and ball skills in coverage” and who is “consistent in run support,” according to ESPN Insider’s Todd McShay (Insider subscription only).
In the wake of the ongoing Aldon Smith scandal, it’s clear that Ward’s “maturity and character red flags” have been deemed as past flaws that won’t materialize in the NFL. There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell Baalke would take such a risk if the first-team All-MAC selection hadn’t been fully vetted and approved in the eyes of the entire 49ers organization.
That said, fans must still rely on some faith in the general manager when assessing this pick. While it is nowhere near the ugly realm of an A.J. Jenkins catastrophe, there are simply too many unknown variables to guarantee Ward's future viability in the NFL.
So until the regular season begins, the Red and Gold faithful must place their trust in Baalke.
Ward is thus draft-day gold until proven otherwise.
Player statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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