San Francisco 49ers: Biggest Matchups Facing Jimmie Ward in Rookie Season
With Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid set to be San Francisco's starting safeties in the upcoming season, it is unlikely that Ward will get playing time at his most natural position in the 2014 campaign.
However, Ward is a versatile player who has the skills in coverage to operate as a nickel cornerback, a position that will be up for grabs following the departures of Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers during the offseason.
Ward is an excellent all-round football player who should have little difficulty plugging the gap at the nickel spot for San Francisco. But the Niners, per ESPN.com, have the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL, meaning that Ward is set to face a number of difficult tests in 2014.
Here I look at the biggest matchups Ward will face in his rookie season as he aims to prove that the 49ers made the right move by selecting him with pick No. 30.
vs. Eric Wright and Perrish Cox
Perhaps the most important matchup Ward will face in his debut year in San Francisco will be the one that takes place during the offseason.
The 49ers may see Ward as a nickel corner in his opening season in the league, but he is set to have the competition for the spot in the lead-up to the campaign.
San Francisco selected three cornerbacks in the draft, although Keith Reaser will likely redshirt his first year and could carry as many as eight active corners on roster. That prospect may be an improbable one, but head coach Jim Harbaugh has already confirmed that Ward will have to compete with Eric Wright and Perrish Cox—both re-signed during free agency—for the nickel spot
That should not be a daunting proposition for Ward, especially considering that neither Wright nor Cox has had particularly impressive NFL careers. Indeed, Wright enjoyed limited playing time in his maiden year with his hometown team in 2013, while Cox bounced between the 49ers and the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks last season.
But both those players will have the benefit of experience over Ward, and Cox should approach the new term with confidence following a strong performance in the 2013 postseason after being re-signed by the Niners for the playoffs.
Wright and Cox also have the advantage of familiarity with San Francisco's defensive scheme, and it will be intriguing to see if Ward can beat out that pair and win the nickel spot.
Should he do so, then it will be an early feather in the cap for this defensive playmaker.
vs. Tavon Austin
The St. Louis Rams may not be the 49ers' most fierce division rival heading into the 2014 season, but they do possess a receiver who is likely to cause Ward and the 49ers secondary some problems.
Tavon Austin is an exciting, dynamic and flexible receiver who has the raw speed to stretch the field and can be deployed in the slot and in the backfield.
His collegiate career with West Virginia proved to be nothing short of spectacular, with Austin totaling over 3,400 receiving yards and scoring 39 all-purpose touchdowns.
Austin's performances with the Mountaineers convinced St. Louis to take him with its first pick in the 2013 draft, and he enjoyed a decent first season with the Rams, finding the end zone six times. However, he was kept in check by San Francisco when he faced the Niners in his rookie year.
Indeed, Austin recorded just six receptions for 31 yards through two encounters with the 49ers last season, and it is Ward who could well be tasked with ensuring that he does not have a bigger impact in their two divisional meetings during the 2014 campaign.
Ward, per Derek Harper of CBSSports.com, ran an unofficial 40-yard dash time of 4.47 seconds at his pro day prior to undergoing surgery on an injured foot. He will need to use all of that pace and proficiency in coverage to ensure that Austin does not enjoy more success versus San Francisco in his sophomore season with St. Louis.
vs. Brandin Cooks
Austin is not the only speed receiver Ward is set to face in 2014.
For the fourth consecutive season the 49ers are to do battle with Drew Brees and his high-powered New Orleans Saints offense, which received a new addition in the draft in the form of Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
A consensus All-American in 2013 following a campaign in which he totaled over 1,700 receiving yards and scored 18 touchdowns, the Saints traded up to pick No. 20 to take Cooks and add him to a core of wideouts that is among the most talented in the NFL.
Cooks figures to feature heavily for the Saints, and his impressive acceleration—he set a rapid time of 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, per NFL.com—should provide San Francisco with a significant problem when it travels to the Superdome for the third straight year.
As with Austin, Ward could well be the player tasked with keeping Cooks quiet. However, with the Saints also possessing the likes of Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and tight end Jimmy Graham, it is not just Cooks that Ward and the Niners will need to worry about.
New Orleans has the capability to keep defenses guessing with a number of different looks, meaning that Ward should be a busy man in the Week 10 trip to Louisiana. This is a game that should provide a good insight into his potential as a future NFL starter.
vs. the Broncos Receviers
The 49ers secondary is set to face a severe test in Week 7 of the 2014 NFL season when it travels to Denver to face the reigning AFC champion Broncos.
A team that was already blessed with a number of talented receivers, Denver boosted its depth at the position in the offseason, filling the void left by Eric Decker—who departed to join the New York Jets—by bringing in Emmanuel Sanders and drafting highly rated Indiana wideout Cody Latimer, adding them to a crop of pass-catchers that also features Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas, as well as tight end Julius Thomas.
Denver possesses arguably the best group of receivers in the NFL, and with Peyton Manning calling the signals for the Broncos, the 49ers will be expected to spend a lot of time in their nickel defense during the encounter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Should that be the case, then Ward is likely to be heavily involved as the Niners attempt to stop one of the league's most dangerous and dynamic offenses.
Ward is blessed with exceptional natural ability and the tools to develop into a superb defensive player in the NFL; however, like any first-round pick, he will face a stern examination in his rookie year as to whether he can perform at the highest level.
In Thomas and Latimer, Denver has two receivers with a great combination of size and speed, while Welker and Sanders are versatile weapons who can be moved around and cause defenses a multitude of problems. Simply put, if Ward is going to make it in the NFL, then this game could very well be his acid test.
vs. the Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks may not have the best group of receivers in the NFL, yet if there is one team that Ward will need to perform well against, it is this one.
Regarded by most as the best rivalry in football, the 49ers and Seahawks will face off twice in the space of three weeks, with the first game coming on Thanksgiving night at Levi's Stadium.
There is little to separate these incredibly well-matched teams, as has been evidenced in the last two meetings between the pair, which have each been decided by a differential of less than a touchdown.
But perhaps one area where the 49ers are behind the Seahawks in terms of quality is in the secondary. Seattle's win in the 2013 NFC Championship Game presents evidence to support this viewpoint, with Seahawks star corner Richard Sherman making the game-winning play after a succession of missed assignments on San Francisco's back end allowed them to recover from a fast start by the Niners.
San Francisco will be eyeing revenge for that disappointment in 2014 as it looks to take back the NFC West title won by the 49ers for two seasons prior to Seattle's rise to prominence.
Both games against the Seahawks will once again be expected to be defensive struggles in which the performances of the respective secondaries should have a crucial bearing on the outcome.
Ward's main assignments against Seattle may come against Percy Harvin and Paul Richardson—the speedy Colorado receiver the Seahawks acquired in the draft—neither of whom will be easy to contain.
But if Ward can improve the San Francisco secondary enough to help the 49ers overcome the Seahawks, then he will have proved his worth as a first-round pick.
Note: All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference.