When will Jimmie Ward enter the starting lineup for the San Francisco 49ers?
It’s a tough question to answer. First-round picks are expected to contribute more or less immediately, but what that means differs from player to player and position to position. Sometimes, rookies start from day one, never missing a beat. Other times, they find themselves riding the pine for a full year before they see significant action.
While there’s no way to know for sure how Ward will fit in to San Francisco’s system right off the bat, we can look at both how other defensive backs have fared in their rookie seasons, as well as how the 49ers have rotated in other first-round rookies in the past, to come up with a decent idea of when we should expect Ward to be on the field.
General manager Trent Baalke has gone on record saying that the nickel corner slot, where Ward is expected to suit up, is a starting role. He points out that the nickel defense is on the field over 60 percent of the time.
What we’re looking for, then, is when rookies started appearing on the field more often than they were sitting out—maybe not quite to the 60 percent threshold but to a point where they’d be more likely to be involved in a play then not.
Let’s delve into the past three years and find out what trends we can spot.
San Francisco’s Rookies
In addition to Jimmie Ward, the 49ers have had three first-round selections in the Jim Harbaugh era:
- Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri (2011, No. 7)
- A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois (2012, No. 30)
- Eric Reid, FS, LSU (2013, No. 18)
Is there a pattern to how Harbaugh deployed them? With only three data points, not really, but that’s not to say we can’t learn something.
Aldon Smith was a terror as a rookie. In his initial campaign, Smith recorded 14 sacks, second-most ever by a rookie, behind only Jevon Kearse’s 1999 season. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him an insane plus-34.8 grade, behind only Cameron Wake among 3-4 outside linebackers that season. It was a fantastic debut for the pass-rushing specialist.
Smith wasn’t the day one starter, however—in fact, he didn’t start a single game in his rookie season. Though it seems hard to imagine it now, Smith found himself behind Parys Haralson on the depth chart. Smith was used solely as a pass-rusher—355 of his 506 defensive snaps saw him going after the quarterback, with only 39 snaps seeing him drop him back into coverage.
It wasn’t until Week 4 at Philadelphia that Smith received more than half of the defensive snaps in a game (39) and recording his first NFL sack on Michael Vick. Smith saw his playing time fluctuate heavily as the season progressed, but as the 2011 season wound down, he was regularly playing more than 60 percent of the snaps.
As a rookie, Smith was basically kept in reserve to do what he was ready to do at the beginning of his career—rush quarterbacks. The team allowed him to build up his run defense credentials before plugging him in as the full-time starter in his second season.
A.J. Jenkins was also allowed to do what he did best; the issue was no one could really decide what Jenkins did best. Jenkins was absolutely buried on the depth chart in his rookie season, appearing on only 47 offensive snaps in 2012. He didn’t see his first regular-season action until Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins because he simply couldn’t crack the receiver rotation.
With Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham ahead of him, you would have thought Harbaugh and Roman would have figured out a way to get their first-round receiver at least a couple of meaningful touches. Instead, Jenkins saw fewer offensive snaps than Ted Ginn and never cracked the starting lineup before being sent off to the Kansas City Chiefs in a trade last preseason. He never caught a pass in a 49ers uniform.
That brings us to Eric Reid. The LSU standout was drafted to fill a particular hole rather than being taken as the best overall talent available at the time of the pick. Dashon Goldson had just signed a big free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving a scrum, led by veteran Craig Dahl to fight for the starting free safety spot.
Unlike Smith or Jenkins, Reid had a starting spot to try to win in his rookie season.
Dahl did indeed get the initial start at free safety during the preseason, but by the all-important third preseason game, Reid had already won the starting job and never looked back, turning in a very solid rookie season.
With the nickel corner position wide open, thanks to the departure of Carlos Rogers, Ward fits closest into Reid’s mold. Ward will have to fight off the likes of Eric Wright, Darryl Morris and Perrish Cox for the role, but he should have every opportunity to become a regular contributor from the very first game of year one.
Three draft picks aren’t a lot of historic data to go on, however. All we can really tell is that Harbaugh likes starting the draft picks who are good and not playing the draft picks who turned out bad. That’s not a pattern, that’s simple common competency at head coach.
Let’s expand the net a little bit—when do rookie defensive backs around the league get their first significant action?
Since Ward was drafted in the No. 30 slot in the first round, I went and looked at every defensive back that was drafted between No. 20 and No. 40 from 2011 to 2013. There have been 10 such players, ranging from starters like Janoris Jenkins to injury-prone backups like Ras-I Dowling.
Five of the ten players were starters from their very first game and maintained that role. Another, Matt Elam of the Baltimore Ravens, took over the starting role last year in Week 2. This is the ideal outcome to Ward’s situation; taking over the nickel role and never looking back.
Two more players, Aaron Williams in Buffalo and Baltimore's Jimmy Smith, saw their ascension to starting roles in 2011 paused by injuries. Williams was a Week 1 starter who ended up suffering chest injuries and only regaining his role halfway through the season, while Smith’s high ankle sprain kept him on mostly nickel and dime duty in his first season. Without the injuries, both likely join the first group as starters from the beginning on.
That leaves us with two players who haven’t yet become regular NFL starters yet—and both of them still got the Week 1 start in their rookie seasons.
The short career of New England's Ras-I Dowling has been absolutely shattered by injuries. Also, selected in the 2011 draft (Round 2), Dowling found himself on injured reserve in both of his first two seasons and only could latch on with the New York Jets’ practice squad in 2013. At this point, he’s a bust.
Darius Slay in Detroit is another story. The Detroit Lions trotted out their second-round pick out as the starting corner in each of the first two weeks of his rookie season last year, then benched him midway through each of those games. He lost the job to Rashean Mathis the next week. Slay finally worked his way back to the starting lineup in Week 13, only to tear his meniscus and fall down the depth chart again.
All in all, the only rookie defensive back in the sample who was healthy and yet didn’t start their opening game was Elam, and he took over the very next week.
All this points to Ward seeing the field right from the very start of his NFL career. It is likely he’ll be thrown right into the fire as San Francisco’s nickel cornerback, left to sink or swim on his own talents. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be the starter for the entire season, but by virtue of his high draft stock, he’ll likely be first in line against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1.
Anything else would be a significant upset.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.