When the San Francisco 49ers' season drew to a close on January 19, it was evident that the team’s biggest area of need on the defensive side of the ball was the secondary.
Over the course of 16 regular-season games in 2013, the Niners’ defensive backfield allowed 43 receptions of 20 yards or more and nine receptions of 40 yards or more.
Furthermore, opposing signal-callers tallied 181 first downs through the air and a quarterback rating of 76.4 versus the 49ers. In reference to those numbers, it’s easy to see why general manager Trent Baalke signed Antoine Bethea and Chris Cook in free agency and selected four defensive backs during the draft.
Yet, of the six fresh faces San Francisco added to its secondary, no one player will be more crucial to the back end of the 49ers defense than first-round pick Jimmie Ward.
In fact, Ward will be the glue that holds the 49ers' new-look secondary together in 2014. Why? Because he displays a versatile skill set that is rarely seen at the strong safety position.
Wiry, active, aggressive strong safety at his best playing downhill and reacting to plays in front him, yet possesses the cover skill to range over the top or lock down defenders in the slot. Ability to stay healthy in the future given lack of size and durability is the biggest concern. A very talented football player who could slide a round or two based on size, medical evaluations and attitude. Can contribute immediately at any safety position and positively affect the game if healthy and focused.
Based on Nawrocki’s findings, pundits' suspicions and the way the 49ers’ depth chart currently stands, one would be wise to pencil Ward in as San Francisco’s starting nickelback in 2014.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed those suspicions shortly after the draft when he chatted with Taylor Price of 49ers.com: “We believe he’ll compete as a nickel for us as well which is a very important position.”
Harbaugh’s right: The nickel corner spot is an important position considering 11 personnel is the new regular in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, the league-wide average for 11 personnel in 2013 was 49.6 percent.
Yes, the use of 11 personnel is undoubtedly lower than 49.6 percent in the NFC West, yet that doesn’t change the reality that the NFL as a whole has turned into a pass-first league.
With that being said, let’s go to the tape and examine Ward’s playmaking ability from the nickel cornerback position.
On this first-quarter play against Florida State in the Orange Bowl, Ward was lined up over the slot wide receiver on the left side of the formation.
As you can see above, Ward slowly walked down to the line of scrimmage and sized the receiver up. Once he sized the receiver up, he then put himself in perfect position to play press-man coverage.
As soon as the ball was snapped, Ward applied the initial jam, opened up his hips and tracked the pass-catcher until the end of the play.
Obviously, this play didn't jump off the tape because it resulted in an incompletion, yet coaching staffs around the NFL will notice how sound Ward’s press-man technique was.
On this next play versus Tulane, Ward was lined up over the slot wide receiver who was on the right side of the formation. However, instead of playing press-man coverage, the All-American safety played off-man coverage.
By playing off-man coverage, Ward had more time to read the receiver's movement off the line of scrimmage and anticipate where the pass-catcher was headed out of his break.
Again, in accordance to his technique, Ward played the wide receiver like a fiddle. He not only baited the quarterback into making a dreadful throw, he closed at just the right time and tipped the ball to himself for a tricky interception.
Much like the last play I broke down, this next play against Western Michigan hones in on Ward’s proficient ball skills.
Prior to the snap, Ward was lined up over the slot receiver on the right side of the formation in off-man coverage. Off-man coverage made a ton of sense here since the offense was facing a 3rd-and-long situation.
Given the nature of the 3rd-and-long situation, Ward had a pretty good idea that the wideout would sit down on his route at the first-down marker.
Lo and behold, the receiver did sit down on his route at the first-down marker. Luckily, Ward’s pre-snap smarts permitted him to sit at the stem of the route and break on the ball while it was in the air.
No, Ward's savvy break on the ball didn’t result in an interception, but it did conclude with a pass breakup and good starting field position for the Huskies offense.
For the fourth and final play, it’s vital we look at Ward’s talents as a pass-rusher from the nickel cornerback position.
On this second-quarter play versus Florida State, Northern Illinois was in its 4-2-5 defensive alignment. Yet, unlike the original 4-2-5 look the Huskies normally give, Ward was playing on the line of scrimmage in preparation to blitz the quarterback.
Pay attention to how quickly Ward attacks the edge by firing off the ball.
Even though Ward doesn’t register a quarterback sack on the play, he does record a quarterback hit and a quarterback hurry. And if you ask PFF analyst Jeff Ratcliffe, “Pass rush productivity is more than just sacks.”
Ratcliffe is onto something because there are times when a hurry or a hit can do more damage than a sack does. This shouldn’t surprise anyone as both hurries and hits are known to lead to errant throws and costly interceptions.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that Ward takes pride in being a jack-of-all-trades player. There aren’t many safeties who can say they are a menace in the run game, a lockdown corner in the slot and a gifted pass-rusher off the edge.
Sure, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Ward will have the same kind of success he had at the collegiate level, yet that’s the case for every rookie. There is no sure thing in the NFL.
And let’s not forget, Baalke has a proven track record when it comes to drafting safeties in the first round. For a case in point, take a look at Eric Reid's phenomenal season in 2013. He was awarded a trip to Hawaii at the end of his rookie year.
Being the glue that holds a secondary together may be intimidating to some first-year defensive backs, but that’s not the case in regard to Ward.
His versatility will take Ed Donatell’s secondary to new heights in 2014.