Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
The secondary is arguably the only area where the 49ers could be considered to somewhat lacking in strength.
San Francisco cut cornerback Carlos Rogers and lost Tarell Brown to the Oakland Raiders, leaving the Niners somewhat thin at that position.
General manager Trent Baalke picked three cornerbacks on the third day of the draft to try and negate the impact of those losses. However, the real move to address the depth in the secondary came in the first round as the 49ers made the surprise selection of Northern Illinois' safety Jimmie Ward.
It was a direction in which few expected San Francisco to go, but the franchise's reasoning for taking Ward soon become clear—they intend for Ward to compete for the nickel cornerback spot.
San Francisco had a hole at nickel following the exits of Rogers and Brown. Should he succeed in winning the job, Ward is excellent fit to plug that gap with his impressive quickness and coverage skills, which enabled him to register seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed in four seasons with the Huskies.
A terrific all-around football player with a tendency for levying violent hits, Ward should bring an intimidating presence to the 49ers secondary. However, as was confirmed by coach Harbaugh, the rookie will have to earn the right to become an immediate contributor, and he is set to battle Perrish Cox and Eric Wright for the nickel spot.
This particular position battle will pit youth against experience, yet, while Cox and Wright each have NFL game time and knowledge of the 49ers defense on their side, it is questionable whether either has the talent to beat out Ward.
Neither Cox nor Wright has really proven himself during their respective pro careers, although the former should approach the offseason competition with confidence having performed to a high standard in the 2013 postseason after being preferred to Wright—whose first season with his hometown team was heavily marred by injury—during the playoffs.
The Niners evidently have faith in both Cox and Wright, re-signing them to one-year deals in free agency, yet it would still be a big surprise if their play is good enough to prevent Ward from earning significant playing time in his rookie year.
Note: All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise stated.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24